Where rape survivors fight for justice amid stigma, trauma
The year 2017 was a watershed for women across the world as the war against sexual misconduct and harassment took a new path that encouraged them to speak out boldly against the vice.
Conversations about sexual harassment sparked international interest and spawned headlines across the world, triggered by the New York Times expose on Hollywood film mogul Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misconduct against actresses.
What followed was the #metoo movement, an global revolution against sexual assault popularised by actress Alyssa Milano.
The #metoo campaign was covered extensively by the media internationally, with reputable titles such as TIME magazine honouring the “Silence Breakers” as the “Time Person of the Year, 2017”, lauding the survivors for their courage to come out and speak boldly against their perpetrators. The #metoo campaign has had its fair share of the domino effects, including the fall of various powerful men. These include comedian and actor Bill Cosby, who was convicted of three counts of aggravated indecent assault against a woman, Fox News Executive Bill O’Reilley and Hollywood Film maker Harvery Weistein.
In 2006, social rights activist Tarana Burke used the same “me too” phrase on the Myspace social platform to encourage women to speak out against sexual harassment. Statistics paint a gloomy picture on sexual harassment, particularly in the workplace.
In the UK, a study conducted in 2016 by the Trade Union Congress and the Everyday Sexism project found that 52 per cent of women have experienced sexual misconduct at the workplace, including distasteful jokes, groping and sexual advances.
In Kenya, according to the 2014 Demographic Health Survey, 43 per cent of women between the ages of 15-49 have reported some form of gender-based violence. It is in the wake of this international movement that the Nation tells the stories of rape survivors who are still struggling to cope with the indignity of the vice.
Wangu Kanja, founder, Wangu Kanja Foundation
Her gruesome story of rape has been told many times, and she is reluctant to retell it. She believes it is time to take the rape conversation to the next level, the bigger picture, and interrogate important issues such as “Why is it that our society treats rape victims so poorly?”. She also asks, “What mechanisms are in place to protect survivors of rape and ensure justice for them?”
These are the tough questions that Wangu has been wrestling with since she founded the Wangu Kanja Foundation in 2005. The foundation is located in the middle of some of Nairobi’s toughest slums. If you stand at the gate of the Ruben Centre, where the foundation is located, to the front, you will see Kwa Njenga and Pipeline slums. To your left is Kayaba and Fuata Nyayo slums. To the right, is Lungalunga and Sinai slums. All these informal settlements are hotbeds of rape and defilement cases that stream into the foundation on a daily basis.
In 2002, Wangu was raped during a carjacking incident as her two male friends were dropping her home after an evening out. It was 10pm. The four carjackers stole their belongings. Following the rape, the gangsters gave Wangu a Sh100 note and asked her to take a matatu home. She reported the matter to the police, hoping they would make arrests. But it was the casualness with which her rape was treated at Makongeni Police Station that appalled Wangu. The matter was recorded in the Occurrence Book as “robbery with violence” and not rape.
“To the police, it was not a big deal,” she says. “The Sexual Offences Act had not yet been passed (it was passed in 2006). Back then, there were no conversations about sexual violence.”
She would later get a post-rape examination within 72 hours as family members helped her secure counselling and ARVs. She then took a two-month break from work to deal with the trauma. But with no support, Wangu slipped into depression and anger, which she numbed with alcohol. She has never bothered to follow up on the case.
“Police never produced any suspect. Whether they investigated or interviewed the people we were with, I don’t know,” she says.
The environment in which rape survivors live is hostile. This is why Wangu reckons that there is a need for mechanisms to support rape survivors access justice. The path to justice, according to Wangu, is lonely, tough and intimidating, where a rape survivor has to deal with police, and then bear a lengthy court process. Many survivors also report intimidation by the perpetrators. The Judiciary, she says, has not done much to protect rape survivors due to testify in court. What is perhaps the worst post-rape nightmare for many survivors is coming out publicly to accuse an individual of rape. While rape victims — such as those interviewed for this story — opt to reveal their real names and have their pictures published, in most cases, perpetrators are accorded the luxury of anonymity and silence.
Society is notorious for branding survivors of rape, and giving them tags such as “the one who was raped”. It is for this reason that Wangu brought together other rape survivors and set up the Wangu Kanja Foundationa.
Cognizant of the fact that sexual violence is multi-pronged, and encompasses health, security, violence and social ills like alcohol and drugs, Wangu is working with men, women and children who have undergone sexual violence to talk about their pain, and for some, to acquire life skills such as making peanut butter for sale.
Many of her members are linked with counsellors, free medical facilities and are assisted in reporting their matters to police and following up on justice. The foundation has over 700 cases of sexual violence so far; 15 have proceeded to court of which five have been concluded with three convictions. Two cases, which were recently concluded, were thrown out of court for lack of evidence.
It is at the Wangu Kanja Foundation that we met three women volunteers from the Mukuru Kwa Ruben slums who are assisting other victims of rape and ensuring that the cases are brought to justice. Although none of these women reported the matters to the police, they are now assisting other rape survivors manoeuvre their way around the criminal justice system.
Eunice Akinyi, community health volunteer, widowed mother of four children:
It is shocking how people in Mukuru Kwa Rueben casually speak about rape. It is almost as if rape has been normalised here, and the women who have experienced it talk about it as if it were an everyday occurrence. Young women and girls risk rape by merely walking unaccompanied in the slum even in broad daylight. However, rape and sexual violence do not just affect women and girls of Mukuru Kwa Ruben. Men, especially drunkards, are also at high risk of rape, as we found out from community health volunteers.
For Eunice Akinyi, it was on one of those lonely walks home in 2001 that she experienced the ordeal that would forever change the course of her life. Months after the death of her husband, Akinyi was walking home at night along Lungalunga Road when two men accosted her and raped her. She knew one of them. He was a friend of her then boyfriend. The other man was a stranger. Immediately after, Akinyo rushed to the local chemist where she was given painkillers and told to go home. She never reported the matter to police. “I was so afraid to do so. It was embarrassing, to be honest. I am a grown woman and a mother. I was afraid people would look at me differently,” she says.
She pushed the traumatic event to the back of the mind, and raised her four children singlehandedly, never speaking of the ordeal until she got involved in a local anti-sexual violence campaign Sita Kimya (I will not be quiet). It was here that she met other rape survivors and, for the first time, shared her experience.
Rape victims during the interview at Ruben centre, Nairobi. PHOTO | NATION MEDIA GROUP
“It was then that I realised that I should have reported the matter to the police immediately,” she says. She had to undergo intense counselling and group “dance therapy” to finally let go of her shame and forgive the perpetrators.
“Had I known what I know now,” she says, “I could have dealt with the situation differently. I think it is now too late to report the matter to police. I don’t even know if those men are still alive or dead.”
Sharing her experiences with other women who had gone through similar ordeals opened Akinyi’s eyes to the reality of rape. Today, Akinyi’s core duties as a community health volunteer involve ensuring that victims of sexual violence in the slum access justice. She uses her skills and knowledge to educate the community on sexual violence and assists in following up on defilement cases.
Lillian Oketch, mother of two, fishmonger, Mukuru kwa Ruben
When Lillian was 13 years, she lived with a step-mother who did not care if she made it home for the evening or not. Lillian would find herself outside on most evenings — often attending the ‘disco matanga’ parties that would go on all night.
“In most cases, I did not know where to go because I never wanted to go back home to my step mother,” she recalls. Lillian would often put up with friends and return to her stepmother the following day. It was after one such night that Lillian decided to stay with a female friend at Kayaba slums. Her friend’s brother and several other men came into the room she was sleeping in and gang-raped her.
“Only one man used protection. I did not know that I was supposed to report the matter to the police,” she says.
The trauma turned a once bubbly teenager into a sulking introvert who avoided interactions with people. Lillian notes that rape is a common experience for women living in the slums and the so-called “parties” could be categorised as high-risk activities. “This happened when I was 13 years old. It was only when I was 20 years old that I realised I should have done something, like report to the police and have those young men arrested,” she says. Today Lillian dedicates a significant amount of time assisting children who have gone through defilement.
Evelyn Achieng’, mother of four, business woman
Achieng’ was 11 years old when she was raped by a farmhand who worked for her family. Her parents divorced when she was very young and her mother remarried soon after. During one of the school holidays, Achieng’ was sent to stay with her grandmother. One of the workers there grabbed her and raped her.
“It was very painful. I could not even walk. My grandmother did not do anything, but my mother knew what had happened the moment she saw me walking the next day,” she says.
Achieng’ remains grateful to her mother who fought for her. She reported the matter to the police and ensured the perpetrator was remanded. Unfortunately, he was later released on bond but her mother remained steadfast and did her best to follow up on the matter. “Even though the police were not as helpful as we expected, my mother did everything she could to get me medical treatment,” she recalls.
The experience left Achieng’ with permanent scars, and her deep fear and resentment for men is perhaps the most obvious. At 18, she got married and had four children, although her husband later died, leaving her a young widow. She then moved to Nairobi with her children and joined a group of rape survivors where she would share her experiences for the first time in a public forum.
Achieng’ is now attached to the Wangu Kanja Foundation where, together with other women, she makes peanut butter and beaded baskets for sale.