Rape on the rise in Kenya

Women and girls -- and men and boys -- under attack in violent "culture of impunity."


Lynn Harris
January 23, 2008 10:30PM (UTC)

Ongoing violence in Kenya, sparked by last month's disputed elections, includes a "spiraling number of sexual attacks," the BBC and Reuters report.

"Since the beginning of [January], we have had 140 cases of rape and defilement," said Rahab Ngugi, patient services manager at the Nairobi Women's Hospital, a leading rape treatment center. (Defilement!) "We were used to seeing an average of about four cases a day. Now there is an average of between eight and 10." Half are girls under 18.

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And those are just the people who show up for treatment (which includes drugs that could help prevent HIV transmission). "If there is a woman who probably saw her relatives killed, she might push her own issues of violence to the periphery," said Hadley Muchela, a rape counselor in Nairobi. "There will be worries about property and the death of children. Their immediate needs are temporary shelter, safety and food."

The quarter-million people who have fled their homes -- 85 percent of whom are women and children, and many of whom are in ad hoc public shelters rather than organized camps -- are particularly vulnerable to attack, often by gangs of armed men, the BBC reported.

"At any time of unrest, of violence, or rioting, women and children are targeted. It is revenge, it is war," said Ngugi. "People are fighting and the weakest ones get abused." (Hello, Congo.)

The BBC continued: "Women's position of relative weakness in society is emphasized in times of conflict, Kathleen Cravero, Director of the UNDP's Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery said. 'Battles are fought on women's bodies as much as on battlefields. It is not so much that women are targeted in some deliberate way but their vulnerability makes them easy targets for anger, for frustration, and for people wanting to cripple or paralyze other segments of the community in which they live.'"

IRIN, the United Nations' humanitarian news service, reports that while women and girls may be at especially high risk, men and boys have been raped as well.

Investigations have also begun into whether the wave of rapes have been targeted at a particular ethnic group. Meanwhile, with the help of the Kenya Red Cross and other NGOs, hospitals have started to set up satellite centers in badly affected slums, according to IRIN.

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Now, experts say, other sectors need to follow suit by promising protection for would-be victims and punishment for would-be attackers. While Cravero "stopped short of directly accusing the Kenyan government (PDF) of ignoring the problem," as Reuters put it, she said that the current violence had created "an environment that is tolerating very high levels of rape and sexual attack against women."

"Gangs find a woman who's searching for firewood, gangs find a couple of young girls that are fetching water," Cravero said. "There's nothing to stop them, there's a climate of impunity, they're sure there will be no consequences, so it happens -- and this is what we have to stop."


Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of BreakupGirl.net. She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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