Although it is more than eight years since hundreds of women were brutally raped during post-election violence in Kenya, the harrowing events of 2007/8 continue to affect survivors to this day. Destitute, in ill health and often ostracized by their family and community, many recall their ordeal as if it had happened yesterday. While the Kenyan government compensated people who were displaced at the time, many survivors of sexual violence have neither been compensated nor seen justice. Agnes Odhiambo, senior researcher in the Women’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch, interviewed survivors countrywide for her new report. She talked to Birgit Schwarz about their pain and why it is important to tell their stories.
I’m a Kenyan. I was here during the post-election violence. I saw the harm, the destruction, the violence, the pain during that time. I kept hearing stories about displaced people and what the government was doing for them. But I did not hear anything about the women who had been raped. Then I met Jaqueline, who told me about her sexual assault and about other women who were raped at the time, who had babies from the rape, were struggling to raise them, and living in poverty. I felt this was a story that was being swept under the carpet. And I thought that we needed to tell it.
You interviewed 163 rape survivors. How did you find them?
Identifying survivors was not easy. I wanted to cover as many regions as possible. I wanted to go to the rural areas to speak to that one woman in the village who has never been able to tell her story. Together with Jaqueline, I started looking for organizations that deal with sexual violence or had mentioned the rapes in the past, and we also talked to networks of internally displaced people. That is how we managed to locate all these women. In one instance, we drove for almost 70 kilometers to interview just this one woman. I felt it was important because she was so isolated and I am glad I made that long trip.
What was her story?
This woman lived in a community where she was an ethnic minority. When the violence erupted her family was targeted. She was gang-raped by a group of youths. A few days later, urine started leaking from her vagina. She had developed traumatic fistula, which is heavily stigmatized. Her husband was killed during the violence. Her family does not want to hear anything about her anymore and her brothers-in-law want to take her land. What really struck me was how fresh and real the pain was when she related the experience. She had never told anybody about the rape until then.
How widespread were these sexual abuses?
The sexual violence was very widespread. If I could find these women in so many places, I can only imagine there must be so many other cases out there. That is why in our report we make the point that the estimate of the Commission of Inquiry into the Post-Election Violence (CIPEV) of 900 cases is an underestimate.
Who were the rapists?
Women were raped by members of Kenya’s security forces as well as organized gangs, by neighbors, relatives, people who pretended to be friends, and even by humanitarian aid workers, who forced women to trade sex for support like money, food, clothing or a tent.
You have done a lot of work on sexual violence in the past. How do these incidences compare to others you have reported on?
What I found to be really distinct about what happened in Kenya is how brutal these rapes were. They involved a lot of physical violence. Women were tied up with their legs pulled apart, thrown onto hard surfaces. There was a lot of beating, cutting with machetes, hitting women in the face, kicking women in the stomach, including those who were pregnant. Some had sticks and bottles inserted into them. Many women could not even remember how many men raped them. A woman would tell you, “I remember four men raping me. I don’t know how many more raped me after that, because I passed out.”
All of this happened eight years ago. How have these brutal events of the past affected the survivors to this day?
Their lives have been destroyed. When these women narrated their stories, they were narrating them as if all of this had happened that very morning. That really shocked me. I realized that the pain is so deep because these women have been forgotten by their own government and ostracized by their families. Many were expressing feelings of loneliness and devastation. What struck me most were the kinds of phrases these women used to talk about their experiences, phrases such as: “I feel like I am imprisoned in my own body;” “It’s in me and it has refused to go away;” “My body is destroyed,” or, “It’s as if I am carrying a heavy stone.”
They were being abused in their homes, had been left by their husbands, were struggling to feed and educate their children. Some who had become pregnant as a result of the rape were feeling very conflicted toward these children. Many had been thrown into deep poverty. Their children were killed or have physical or mental disabilities as a result of the violence. Some were infected with HIV, but don’t have proper treatment, and even if they manage to get ARVs [antiretroviral drugs] they don’t have food to take the medication. Some were describing symptoms that are typical for sexually transmitted diseases, such as lower abdominal pain or a smelly discharge from their vaginas, which shows that these infections have never been treated for all these years.
How hard was it for the women to tell their stories?
Some were concerned about their safety. There are women who know the perpetrators, so they fear that if they speak about the rape there could be reprisals. Some also did not want their families to know that they had been raped. But a lot of them experienced relief. I remember this woman in Rift Valley. She was about 80 or 85 years old. She was raped by two young men, who threw her on the ground, where she hit a stone. One of them stepped on her chest, so she was having problems with her chest and with her back. In the middle of the interview she suddenly fell quiet. I asked her if she needed a break or wanted to stop the interview. But she responded: “I am just surprised that you are here, listening to me. All these years I believed that we had been forgotten and nobody was really interested in people like me. But here you are.” It was really touching. It told me that I am not doing this work in vain.
What stories stood out for you?
Among the stories that stood out for me are the stories of women who got pregnant as a result of having been raped and their struggle to accept and raise their children. I remember one girl who had come to visit some relatives in Nairobi. She was raped by a group of young men and fell pregnant as a result. When she went to an abortion clinic, she became so scared when she was shown the instruments that would be used that she went back home and decided to have the baby and maybe throw it away or give it up for adoption. She ended up having a daughter. She did not give her away. But she started abusing her from a very early age. She would beat her, shout at her, tell her, “I wish you would just die.” One time she thought of going to a market and just leaving the child there. Another time, she cut her with a razor. The little girl was so scared she hardly dared talk to her mother. But thanks to Jaqueline’s counseling, this young woman is now trying to mend her relationship with her child. It’s not easy, though, because every day she sees her daughter, she is reminded of the rape.
What effect has this research had on you personally?
It is not easy to hear a woman telling you how she was gang raped by eight men, how the men who raped her inserted a bottle into her vagina or inserted sticks into her. Those stories keep coming back to you. You keep asking yourself, "will these women really get help? What is happening to that woman now?"
Some women know the perpetrators. Why have they not been prosecuted?
Many of these women are not willing to come forward to report their case because they fear stigma and reprisal. But many of those who did report, did not get any support from the police. Many were being told to go and look for the perpetrators themselves. In some cases, police refused to take reports from women, or refused to follow up on the leads that women gave them. The police have displayed an extremely negligent and dismissive attitude toward women who went to report. So if a woman was treated this way then, how do you convince the same woman now to try and follow up on the case? The Kenya government has not implemented any programs to provide proper psycho-social support services for rape survivors and their families, or to provide livelihood support. A woman who is sick, hungry and ostracized is unlikely to want to go through a long court process that has no material benefit.
What ought to be done to make the lives of these women more bearable?
The government first and foremost has to acknowledge that these abuses happened. As a matter of priority, it needs to identify survivors who have pressing medical needs and provide them with free medical treatment and access to psychosocial services. It needs to assist women who are sleeping hungry, who are experiencing violence in their homes. Where women cannot afford to send their children to school, the government should step in. The government needs to develop and implement a comprehensive reparations policy to address the various needs of sexual violence survivors. In the long term the government has to ensure justice, because impunity is part of the reason why the post-election violence happened. In fact, the survivors I interviewed want the perpetrators to be prosecuted as a way of deterring future abuses. As one woman told me, “if the police who are supposed to protect us can just rape women and nothing is done to them, what will stop men to continue raping us?"
What is the most important insight you take away from these interviews?
For me the most important take away is that these women are refusing to be ignored by the government. They had to summon up great courage to tell their stories. They are saying, "we are here, these are our problems, you are our government. It is bad enough you failed to protect us and that these rapes happened. Now you want to forget us again, yet we will not be forgotten."
This interview has been edited and condensed.