Widespread sexual violence marred Kenya’s 2017 elections, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The Kenyan government should urgently take steps to protect women and girls, as well as men and boys, from sexual violence.
The 31-page report, “‘They Were Men in Uniform’: Sexual Violence against Women and Girls in Kenya’s 2017 Elections,” documents the devastating physical, mental, social, and economic impact of gender-based violence and serious human rights abuses surrounding the recent elections. Human Rights Watch found that the government failed to prevent election-related sexual violence, properly investigate cases, hold attackers accountable, and ensure that survivors have access to comprehensive, quality, and timely post-rape care. Many attacks were by security forces, survivors said.
Widespread sexual violence marred Kenya’s 2017 elections. The Kenyan government should urgently take steps to protect women and girls, as well as men and boys, from sexual violence.
“The impact of sexual violence on survivors is devastating,” said Agnes Odhiambo, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Almost all women and girls we spoke to suffered physical harm and profound mental trauma and feared that their attackers may never be held accountable.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed 68 females, three male survivors of sexual violence, and 12 witnesses in Mathare, Dandora, and Kibera in Nairobi, and in Kisumu and Bungoma in western Kenya. Human Rights Watch also interviewed 12 Kenyan and international civil society activists and community volunteers providing services to women. Human Rights Watch identified significant barriers that prevent many survivors from getting even basic medical and mental health support services and from seeking justice.
The women and girls interviewed described brutal gang rapes involving two or more attackers. Many said that they were raped vaginally and anally, that they were penetrated with objects, or that dirt was inserted into their private parts. Some were raped in the presence of family members, including young children. Most women said they were raped by policemen or men in uniform, many of whom carried guns, batons, teargas canisters, whips, and wore helmets and other anti-riot gear. In at least one case, a girl died after being raped.
A 27-year-old woman interviewed had given birth on August 7, and was raped by three policemen on August 11. “I feel useless,” she said, describing her life afterward. “I don’t speak to people. I feel so sad. I feel as if I have reached the end. I think of killing myself.”
Many women and girls said they suffered incapacitating physical injury or experienced other health consequences that left some unable to work or care for their families. Young girls said they experience nightmares, lack of sleep, listlessness, fear, and anxiety that limits their ability to study.
Most had not received post-rape medical or psychological care, including medication to prevent HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, and unwanted pregnancy. Barriers included insecurity, the cost of services or transportation, stigma, a lack of health facilities, and a lack of information about the importance of timely treatment or where survivors could get free treatment. Some women who received medical treatment said that the services were not comprehensive, there was no forensic documentation of sexual violence, or that they did not get appropriate referrals for medical treatment, counseling support, or to the criminal justice system.
A history of impunity for sexual violence in Kenya seriously undermines women’s ability to report sexual crimes to the police, Human Rights Watch said. Very few women said they made police reports, and many expressed a lack of confidence in the police due to a long history of human rights abuses and corruption. Others said they feared retaliation. Some women who did try to report sexual violence said that police sent them away without taking statements, ridiculed or verbally abused them, or failed to follow up on complaints.
One woman who said she was raped in the presence of police, along with five other women, described what happen when they tried to report the attack: “They asked, ‘How do you know they were police?’ They said, ‘If you had been raped you would have gone to hospital first. Where is the evidence? How can we believe you?’ They told us we must have enjoyed the rape.”
The Kenyan government has long ignored election-related sexual crimes and victims’ suffering, Human Rights Watch said. Thousands of women and girls are estimated to have been raped during the 2007-2008 political violence, including by state security agents. They continue to suffer serious physical and psychological trauma, and socioeconomic hardship almost a decade later, and very few cases have been properly investigated or attackers held accountable.
Past government plans to assist victims of the 2007-2008 violence have excluded rape survivors, and they have not received medical or other assistance. Barriers to reporting, problems with the collection of forensic evidence, and the unwillingness of authorities to initiate genuine, credible, and fair investigations and prosecutions to punish attackers were key challenges in Kenya after the 2007-2008 election-related rapes, and remain a problem.
The Kenyan government should change its approach. It should ensure that all sexual assault victims get timely, quality, and confidential post-rape treatment, including psychosocial, or mental health, care for themselves and their families, and inform communities where victims can get post-rape care, including free treatment. The Kenyan government should ensure that credible investigations are conducted into all allegations of elections-related sexual violence.
“Sexual violence survivors should not be left suffering and ashamed of being victims while the Kenyan government shows no shame at failing to meet their needs or to prosecute their attackers,” Odhiambo said. “Instead of downplaying the election-related sexual abuse, the Kenyan government should ensure that all survivors get appropriate medical care and justice.”
Names of victims have been changed for their protection.
Rose Otieno, 37, was in her house with her five children on the night of August 11. She said that two men dressed in green-and-black uniforms, boots, and helmets broke into her house. One had a gun, the other a baton and a whip. They asked her where her husband was. “One asked me to say, ‘I do not support Raila [Odinga, the presidential challenger], I support Uhuru [Kenyatta, the winner].’ I refused…. The other one said, ‘Let’s teach her a lesson.’ He raped me in the presence of my children.” She said that due to the stigma and rejection attached to rape: “I didn’t go to hospital. I feared, I was ashamed. I have never gone to hospital. I feared because if you tell someone, even the doctor, you will hear about it.”
Liz Nzau said that she was on her way home from work on the night of August 11 when she met a group of young Kikuyu men who were out celebrating Kenyatta’s victory. They asked her, “Why are you not joining the celebration? You are Luo, you are NASA [National Super Alliance] supporter.” She said: “They took me into a shack where there were five other women. They brought some dirty-looking men who raped us as police walked around the shack. They were moving from one woman to another. They were slapping us and beating us with a rubber whip, and urinating on us. One of the women had her [menstrual] period and they wore a plastic paper bag when raping her. One of the women said they inserted a medicine bottle in her anus.”