Turning A Blind Eye: Rape Culture in Kenya
Angry women protest on the streets of Nairobi after police in Busia punished three men suspected of raping a 16-year-old - paralysing her in the process - by simpling requiring them to cut the police station's grass before releasing them.
Norah Ndegwa* woke up to a bright and early start on the morning of March 30, 2013. It was going to be a big day – her wedding day, to be exact. But that morning Norah had one chore to run, taking her friend to the bus stop, before she could start getting ready. It was a quick task – her house wasn’t far from the stop – and as they walked, they chatted excitedly. After seeing her friend off safely and on her way back home, she noticed a man leaning against a white Toyota Corolla that hadn’t been there before. Cars, and at times matatus, usually passed on this road, even though it was a narrow one. Nothing looked out of place as the man, dressed in a black T-Shirt and blue jeans, seemed to be minding his own business. But as she passed him, two things happened simultaneously; the man launched himself at her and covered her mouth, and the back door was opened swiftly by another man who grabbed her by her feet and pulled her into the car.
“There were three men, including the driver, and they all took turns to rape me in the back seat,” Norah says, crossing her arms on her lap in a defensive manner. The windows were tinted, she says, and with her mouth covered no one knew what was going on inside the car on that narrow path. As she speaks, it’s clear that, even though the ordeal happened a year ago, it remains engraved on her mind, fresh as the day it happened. “After the driver was finished, they threw me out and sped off,” she adds.
Rape is a deplorable act that causes mental anguish and, even though they may heal physically, the victims carry psychological scars for the rest of their lives. But in Kenya, despite how horrible rape is, it is a crime on the rise.
Rape in Kenya
Rape, as you would expect, varies from region to region. In rural areas, cases of statutory rape are rampant: female students by their teachers and toddlers by fathers or guardians. Kenya hosts the largest number of refugees in East Africa in Dadaab and Kakuma camps, in which women and children are raped at gun point as a form of payback by the militia in these areas, which are meant to be protected. Rapists even target Nairobi’s suburbs, though the acts are orchestrated a bit differently – the perpetrators trail their victims and wait for them to drive up to the gates of their homes before pouncing. In colleges and universities, date rape is not uncommon, with victims in their late teens or early 20s often targeted by fellow students, friends or acquaintances.
One of several billboards put around Nairobi to campaign against sexual violence in Kenya.
However, in the past year the most reported type has been gang rapes, specifically of underage girls. Kenyan slums, where the arm of the law is not far reaching, are breeding grounds for crime, and it is here that these chilling accounts take place. Unmonitored and unchecked by police, the gangs are running amuck in these streets, and the easiest prey is young girls.
Kayole – where Norah lives – Kibera and Dandora are slums that have become hotspots for this heinous act, committed by troupes of young men wielding crude weapons. The situation is similar toNew Delhi, India, where stories of gang rapes in public areas have been making global headlines, even here in Kenya, on an almost weekly basis.
But, even though they are closer to home, local rape cases are not getting as much attention. In South Africa – the country with the most reported cases of rape on the continent – half a million people fall victim to the crime each year. And the current trend to hit SA is ‘corrective rape’, which seeks to convert lesbians into heterosexuality. The statistics from SA are shocking, deplorable even, but we are not yet willing to admit how bad the situation in Kenya is.
According to the Equality Effect, an organisation that develops creative legal solutions to address the inequality of women and girls in Africa, at least 300 people are raped in Kenya every day. However, it remains unclear exactly how many victims there actually are, as most rapes go unreported. In Kenya there’s still heavy stigmatisation – we live in a society where remaining chaste until marriage is preached and sex is a taboo subject. It’s a difficult thing, then, for girls and women who have been through this ordeal to publicly come forward to friends, family and the police – the latter of whom may not even be of assistance.
Their track record shows that police in Kenya have not handled many of these cases with the seriousness or professionalism that they require. Liz, a 16-year-old, was attacked and repeatedly raped on Oct. 8, 2013, on her way home from her grandfather’s funeral in Busia. After raping her, the men threw her into a latrine in the hopes that she would succumb to her injuries. But the strong-willed girl, whose back was broken, survived and managed to identify three of the men that had attacked her. After being taken into custody, the men were given slashers and told to cut grass around the local police station as punishment before they were released. This caused public outrage – the girl had internal injuries, was paralysed and the only punishment her attackers received was cutting grass? Under Kenya’s Sexual Offences Act, the men, had they gone to trial and been determined guilty, should have served not less than seven years in prison. And while this response is bad enough, what’s worse is that the attitude behind it – the fact that rape is not treated with the severity it merits – might just be one of the reasons why rape cases are escalating.
Dandora, with a population of 142,026, is a slum in Nairobi where most houses are made of mud. The toilets, which overflow with sewage that bubbles onto the narrow corridors in between houses, are latrines built adjacent to the homes. The chance of getting lost, if you are new in the area, is very high, as the structures all resemble each other. Shashamani, which is at the heart of Dandora, is home to a gang of about 20 rapists who go by the name Jeshi (army). Their victims are dragged into vacant shanties in the neighbourhood, becoming “mboga ya Jeshi” (food for the army).
In December 2012, 13-year-old Nyambura didn’t think it peculiar that she was the only female in the matatu she had taken from her aunt’s place in Kayole. When the matatu got to Shashamani, the driver stopped the matatu as one passenger had indicated that he wanted to alight. But instead of doing so, the men, all except the driver, pounced on her and beat her as they dragged her from the matatu. “They were boys who looked to be between the ages of 14 and 16,” Nyambura says in a small, quiet voice when I ask if she could tell how old her attackers were. I’m meeting her in one of the classrooms of a primary school in Dandora, and, it being a Saturday, the place is vacant. It’s the only spot that she would agree to meet at, as she’s still afraid, after all this time, that her attackers might be tracking her movement. The 15-year-old constantly wrings her hands as she slowly narrates her story.
During the attack no one came to her aid as she screamed for help, not even the driver of the matatu. “They dragged me to an empty house. One of the boys came in and put me on the bed and told me to remove my clothes,” she says, her voice beginning to wobble. When she refused to undress, the boy switched off the lights, using the small stream of sunlight coming in through the window to do it himself. For two days, the seven boys took turns raping her.
Nyambura’s dusty feet are in red, old slippers, which she digs her toes into as we talk. “My mother didn’t know of my whereabouts for two days. But on the second day, my friends are the ones who came looking for me.” Brave and desperate to find her, the three friends started a search party. The four had grown up together and they knew that Nyambura would not just up and leave. They combed every nook and cranny until they eventually found her in the shanty. Although the boys were nowhere in sight, lying on the bed was a half conscious Nyambura.
The ordeal has left her traumatised. It’s almost a year and a half after she was raped, and she is not comfortable talking about it. However, she feels a need to make sure her story is known. She’s never gone to the police directly, because, according to her, talking about sex is still taboo in her culture. Similarly, after her mother beat her when she first got home, angry that she’d disappeared for two days, she’s never spoken with her about it. However, Nyambura bravely spoke out on national television last year, in an anonymous interview for a KTN report, needing to do something that would call attention to her plight and that of the other girls growing up in Dandora. Even after speaking to KTN, she admits that not much has changed. “The police did disband one of the notorious gangs in the area, but even after that, the rapes continued. One will be disbanded but two more will take its place.” Now, as she struggles through her story again, it’s clear that she’s committed to using herself as an example, to hopefully make people care enough that other girls from her neighbourhood won’t have to go through the same.
Usually, when the rapist isn’t caught, the victims won’t speak out for fear of being attacked [again]. However, it’s also not uncommon for victims to blame themselves, at least somewhat, for the attack, with thoughts like “Had I not been drinking” or “Had I not been out that late at night” running through their minds. When these ideas are allowed to fester, many women and girls will feel ashamed and keep their story to themselves. It doesn’t help that such a premium is put on sexual purity and abstinence, so that, even when a girl has had no choice in the matter, she is still ashamed to have had sex.
Worse still, even for the girls and women who are willing to risk stigmatisation, there’s also the question of what good will come from speaking out. While they may get support from the people around them, it seems that, in most cases, they won’t get the support of the police or the justice system.
“We are holding rallies at the hotspots, but we can’t do more than that without help from the government,” insists Monicah Waithera, Dandora Phase II Area Chief. And, while she does genuinely seem troubled by how prevalent rape has become in the area she’s in charge of, the Kenyan police certainly can’t be accused of being overzealous when it comes to pursuing rape cases. After Liz was saved from the latrine the rapists had thrown her into, her mother was told by the police to go and wash her daughter off, destroying potential forensic evidence – and similar stories abound.
All the while, more and more girls fall victim to rape every day. Police are struggling to respond to the crime appropriately, but even as they’re playing catch up, the gangs are evolving and finding new ways of preying on their victims.
In Nairobi, underage teenagers – below the age of 18 – slip into nightclubs easily and often after bribing the bouncers. The teens are often knowingly putting themselves potentially into harm’s way to attend notorious Jam Sessions. Clubs, especially ones in downtown Nairobi, have now become hunting grounds for rapists, who lie in wait for young girls to stream out tired and intoxicated.
In August last year, 15-year-old Julia* almost became another of Jeshi’s victims. It had been around 8pm when she decided to head home from a Jam Session in downtown Nairobi. And, just outside the club, she was approached by a girl who looked to be about her age. “She was dressed like most of us – short skirt and a strapless top – and her voice was quite raspy,” Julia recalls. The girl had seen her in Dandora a few times before, so she knew that Julia was going back to the slum. “She told me that there was a matatu just about to leave, but with room for one more passenger.” As they approached the matatu, however, Julia realised that all the passengers were male. “All of them were looking at me and they gave me the creeps, so I turned back and hurriedly walked in the opposite direction.” The girl remained standing next to the matatu when Julia hightailed it, but the boys were relentless. They pursued her, as she was briskly heading to the bus stop on the other side of the road, and only stopped following her when she started running and came to a stop beside a group of conductors and drivers. Julia hasn’t been back for a Jam Session ever since.
The sprawling slum of Dandora, where each day at least three cases of rape are reported.
The girl who lured Julia, according to Chief Waithera, had once been a victim herself. She’d been raped numerous times by these boys, to the point that she eventually befriended them. The Chief, being a mother of three teenagers – two girls and a boy – can’t imagine anything happening to her daughters, and on several occasions she has summoned this girl to her office to try and help her, the pleas landing on deaf ears. The girl, who has currently disappeared from Dandora, has been arrested before on suspicion of attempted assault, but was released due to lack of evidence. Her mother is a single parent and not overly concerned about her daughter’s well-being.
Her case is telling in several ways, an example of the impunity with which rapists operate in the slums. Chief Waithera knows so much about her and yet is helpless to do anything to prevent her from assisting rapists, because no one is willing to talk. However, worse is the fact that this girl was raped repeatedly herself and felt she had no one and nothing to turn to, to the point that she eventually turned to the rapists themselves. Now she offers up her luring services for KSH 50.
Following Jeshi’s example, more gangs are now recruiting females, typically teenagers between the ages of 14 and 16 who have dropped out of school. The girls bring other female victims to the boys, who are armed with knives, stones and bottles. The women in the areas where these gangs operate have become so paralysed by fear of attacks that, to be on the safe side, they walk in groups after nightfall. What else is there to do when speaking out doesn’t guarantee a solution, as even those who are supposed to be protecting them have so far not been of much help to the victims?
“Parents should take responsibility for their children,” says Andrew Kimani, Assistant County Commissioner, Dandora Division. “Young girls go for Jam Sessions where they get drunk, and this makes them vulnerable to such attacks,” Kimani explains when I ask why there have been so many reported rapes in the area. “Children start using drugs at a very tender age,” says Naftal Kyalo, a middle-aged man who operates a kiosk in Dandora phase III. “Most perpetrators are very well known, but out of fear, no one is willing to speak up,” he adds.
Yet even when a woman is willing to take that chance, her case is not likely to be handled appropriately. After going to the police, the men who attacked Norah have yet to face justice, like so many other cases.
“I was like someone who was in a trance,” Norah says, as she recalls the day she was attacked. She can’t tell how long she lay on that path, but she remembers being taken home by two women and a man who happened to be passing there and found her lying on the ground. Being her wedding day, almost all her relatives were at her house in preparation for the ceremony. But everything came to a standstill when she got home. “After ensuring that I changed my clothes, which were torn and full of blood, my mother and aunts drove me to the Kayole police station. My mother wrapped the clothes I had been wearing in a newspaper and took them with us.” The experience at the station was harrowing; Norah was forced to relive the attack when she gave her statement. “I was asked for a detailed description of the men, what they had been wearing and the car they had been driving.” After that day, even though Norah has been to the police station several times, her attackers seem to have disappeared without a trace as the police have never found any new evidence that could lead to their arrest.
However, more than an overhaul of police procedure, Kenya needs to evaluate how rape is regarded from the top down. The gangs operating in high-risk areas are armed with crude weapons like bottles, machetes and stones that they use on victims who resist. The justice system is broken, seemingly viewing crimes against women as lesser. Robbery with violence has a mandatory sentence of the death penalty, meaning that an individual prosecuted for using violence to steal a woman’s handbag would receive a more severe punishment than if he had raped her. While women’s rights are slowly becoming increasingly recognised in society, this characterisation of rape makes it clear that it has not been considered the terrible crime that it is. Rape has lasting psychological effects on its victims, and internationally is often punished with the same vehemence as murder. Here, the severity of the crime is beginning to be understood, but a great deal more can certainly be done. There needs to be a dramatic change in how rape victims are treated, as stigmatisation contributes to the rise of rape crimes. The thought of being scorned by parents or pitied and shunned by friends and society leads to the silence of victims such as Nyambura. While in some cases the attackers are in masks and not known to the victims, rapists in Dandora are familiar faces. The victims could easily direct the police to their attackers – they often could identify them – but they choose to stay quite.
In Kenya, the number touted by officials is 300 rapes each week, but who knows how many actually occur when victims are either too ashamed or afraid to report their attack?
Struggling to Help
However, in the face of adversity there are still those trying to help. Nairobi Women’s Hospital has developed a Gender Violence Recovery Centre (GVRC), which offers specialised medical treatment and psychosocial support to survivors of sexual and domestic violence for those who cannot afford treatment. According to Hilda Nyatete, Manager of the Medical Services and Psychosocial Support Unit, gang rapes are an emerging trend, especially in slums. And the main challenge is that most rape victims aren’t coming forward. “Most survivors who come to the GVRC centre for treatment do so after a lot of coercing by members of the GRVC who visit the hotspots.”
Had it not been for her family, Norah isn’t sure she would have survived the ordeal. She is thankful for her fiancé – now husband – who stood by her and ensured that she sought help at the GVRC. “George* was my rock, he still is,” she says. After leaving the police station, Norah was taken to Nairobi Women’s Hospital where she saw a gynaecologist for vaginal bleeding and chronic pelvic pain. They also checked her for sexually transmitted diseases like HIV/AIDS. “They ran all sorts of tests on me,” Norah says with a slightly embarrassed smile, “They then advised me to attend their psychological trauma programme, and that, I think, is what kept me sane. I still attend it, but not as frequently as last year.” The programme helped her cope with depression – which she fell into for a few months, including social isolation from her family and friends – and ensured that she didn’t blame herself for what happened.
But, as helpful as these programmes can be, it takes a lot to get victims from slum areas to turn to them, as even organisations created to help, like Fortress of Hope Africa (FOHA), which works to rescue rape victims, are not immune to the gangs. FOHA has for the past year been working to enlighten rape victims on ways that they can get justice – like not washing the clothes they had worn while they were attacked or not wrapping them in plastic bags, as the moisture might absorb the evidence. However, late last year, the organisation’s members started getting threats from Jeshi, and they have been forced to move their offices from Dandora. As a result, FOHA’s officials were hesitant to speak with me. “When they stormed into our office they didn’t even cover their faces. They were just children who looked really high,” said Catherine Njambi*.“They said they let us off with a warning, which was the only one we were ever going to get.”
Constant withdrawal from ongoing cases by victims of rape has derailed efforts to bring offenders to book. “The legal framework is not adequate, as poor investigations continue and victims also fear to testify in their own cases,” says Jane Ruth Serwanga, a High Court advocate. Jane is the former Deputy Chief Executive Officer at the Federation of Women Lawyers, where she worked on numerous gender-based violence cases, especially rape. A major frustration was that most of their clients came to report the cases after the evidence had already been destroyed, because they’d been poorly advised. “We couldn’t do much for the girls, as most came to us after having washed off, because that is what the officer at the police station told them to do.” While the law, which imposes a strict minimum sentence of seven years, might not seem harsh enough to fit the crime, what’s worse is that very few suspected rapists are ever even arrested because many police officers treat such complaints with a dismissive or casual attitude.
Some of the cases are also dropped due to a tiresome legal framework, which deters the process from proceeding to the point of a verdict. Of the cases that get heard, the sentence passed depends on the arguments and evidence brought to the court, but Jane divulges that most of the cases which were filed last year have yet to see the light of day, as they have either been withdrawn or there is insufficient evidence to make a prosecution. Fear of their perpetrators still makes it difficult to fight against the rising tide of rape cases, so many victims and their families deal with the issue personally, and will at times relocate to a different part of the city or just move out of town. It’s not a solution by any means, and even if it were, it’s not an accessible option for many of those living in Dandora, Kayole and Kibera, as they do not have the resources to leave their old lives behind.
Survivors of rape will pick up the pieces and try to move on with their lives as best as they know how. In addition to axing Jam Sessions, Julia is more attuned to her surroundings and will not be found wandering too far from home when it’s dark, and Norah got her dream wedding exactly a year after she was raped. For Nyambura, moving on has been harder. Before she was attacked, she was a bright student looking forward to joining high school. After the rape, however, her grades suffered to the point that she dropped out of school and now helps her mother sell groceries in Dandora.
“No one is willing to speak out,” a forlorn Nyambura tells me. “Most rapists know where their victims live and the thought of them coming back makes us keep quiet.” Nyambura is growing more confident about speaking out and is using the media as a way to bring to light the situation in her neighbourhood. And with more women and girls frustrated at seeing their story play out over and over again with new victims, things are – slowly, maybe – starting to turn around.
Kimani says that crime has been deteriorating slowly in Dandora since September last year when the Nyumba Kumi project was initiated. The project which is meant to boost security in the country requires everyone to know their neighbours. “This has reduced suspicion among residents who have started walking freely without fearing attacks.”
But still, living in a neighbourhood where you have to watch your every step for fear of being attacked is no one’s cup of tea. And in the areas where these gangs operate, people – mostly women and girls but also their husbands, fathers and brothers – are fed up. People are angry, but what remains to be seen is if that anger can be used to change both the official policies regarding the crime and the way average Kenyans think about rape and its victims.
* Names have been changed
If you have experienced sexual assault or know anyone who has and wish to reach out for support, contact Nairobi Women’s Hospital’s Gender Violence Recovery Centre: +254 20 386 2772 / +254 20 272 6821