Gang rapes and worse

Kenya's post-election chaos is proving particularly harmful to women.

Published February 19, 2008 5:50PM (EST)

As if recent developments in Kenya haven't been depressing enough, here's an update from Women's eNews about the effect that the post-election violence has had on women. It starts with the story of Elizabeth Wanjiru, a member of Kenya's Kikuyu ethnic group, who is married to a Maasai man. She claims that even before the election took place, he began beating her because he thought she would vote for the incumbent, President Mwai Kibaki, who is Kikuyu, whereas he wanted her to vote for the opposition candidate, Ralia Odinga. That's bad enough, but when Wanjiru's husband began to threaten to kill her if she did not leave, and she noticed that mobs were setting fire to their Kikuyu neighbors' homes, she decided that she needed to flee. So she took her three children, left her husband and set out for the ancestral home of the Kikuyu -- a place she'd never been, but where she hoped she'd be safe.

Wanjiru's story represents the violence and displacement that both men and women have been facing in Kenya since the violence began. But as is often the case when societal rules go out the window, women are being particularly hard struck. The article says that in areas where overall violence has been the worst, reports of rape and sexual violence have doubled. Children haven't been able to attend school -- either because they've been displaced or because their parents are scared to let them out of the house -- and women, too, are often afraid to leave their homes.

Particularly upsetting is a report from Nairobi Women's Hospital, which says it has treated more than 300 rape cases since the violence began, and that 95 percent of those cases were gang rapes. Worse yet, hospital administrators suspect that many other rape victims didn't make it to the hospital at all, partially because buses stopped running during the worst of the violence. As a result, they may have missed opportunities to get post-exposure prophylaxis to help prevent transmission of HIV.

So far, Kofi Annan and Condoleezza Rice have both stepped in to try to mediate, and violence has subsided, says the Guardian, as people await the results of their efforts. I think it's pretty sad that people would base their decisions on whether to burn their neighbors' homes on what some politicians say -- and I fear that regardless of how things proceed from here, irreversible damage has already been done. Still, for the sake of all Kenyans, let's hope that the mediations have a peaceful effect.

By Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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