I had already heard many disturbing stories of violence by the time I interviewed Mercy Maina, whose name I have changed to protect her privacy. Even so, what Mercy told me was truly disturbing. She said she was raped during the post-election violence in August alongside her sister by two men wearing uniforms and helmets, and carrying guns and walkie-talkies.
But, Mercy told me, this was not the first time she had been a victim of post-election sexual violence. She was also raped by two police officers during the 2007-2008 post-election violence, that time with a friend who later committed suicide. Mercy became pregnant from that rape and has a 9-year-old daughter. She said she still suffers from stomach ulcers as a result of the stress of that rape.
Mercy is one of 71 women, girls, and men I interviewed about rape and other sexual violence during Kenya’s 2017 elections. They described brutal cases of vaginal and anal rape, gang rapes involving two or more attackers, mass rape of a group of women, attempted rape, rape with an object, putting dirt into a woman’s private parts, unwanted sexual touching, forced nudity, and beatings on genitals.
Some women were raped in the presence of family members, including children. In at least one case, a girl died after being raped. Most of the attackers, survivors and witnesses told me, were policemen or men in uniform, many of whom carried guns, batons, teargas canisters, and whips, or wore helmets and other anti-riot gear, and by militia groups.
Many said they experienced profound mental trauma and anguish, they felt hopeless, fearful and anxious, had nightmares about the assault, or suicidal thoughts. Mercy, like many survivors, did not get immediate or comprehensive post-rape medical care or any mental health services. She and her sister didn’t go to a medical facility until two weeks after the rapes because they were afraid to go out in case their attackers came back and because they did not want to tell health workers what had happened. “You cannot trust people,” she told me.
Mercy never reported the sexual assault to the authorities. The reason she gave me captures the lack of trust in the police expressed by many survivors: “I did not go to the police because even in 2007 we were abused by the police and we were told by police you cannot report the government to the government.”
Some of the women we interviewed did try to report sexual violence, but the police sometimes sent them away without taking statements, ridiculed or verbally abused them, or failed to follow up on complaints. Such unprofessional police response also undermines survivors’ ability to seek help from health facilities, and weakens justice efforts.
Members of the Kenyan police and security forces have a long history of committing abuses, including sexual violence, during election periods, but the authorities have largely ignored election-related sexual crimes and the victims’ suffering. Thousands of women and girls are estimated to have been raped during the 2007-2008 political violence, including by state security agents.
Based on our extensive research, the authorities rarely provided any medical treatment or post-rape counselling, or offered victims any financial support. Almost a decade later, very few cases have been properly investigated or attackers held accountable.
The Kenyan government continues to underestimate and has even denied the abuses committed during the 2017 elections. In December, President Uhuru Kenyatta congratulated the police, for “being professional” and “firm” during the election period, a move that shocked many Kenyans and was quickly criticized by civil society groups and others.
The Kenyan government and other state authorities have an obligation to protect women and girls, men and boys against sexual violence, to punish offenders, and provide reparations to victims. All sexual assault victims should get timely, quality, and confidential post-rape treatment, including psychosocial, or mental health, care for themselves and their families, and communities need to know where victims can get post-rape care, including free treatment.
It is critical for the government to also ensure that credible criminal investigations are conducted into all allegations of election-related sexual violence. It should consider establishing an independent judicial commission of inquiry to examine any unlawful activities of the police, including allegations of sexual violence, with a view to ending impunity and ensuring accountability.
The Inspector General of Police has committed to put in place a taskforce to investigate the involvement of its officers or other men in uniform in sexual violence during the 2017 elections period. If the task force is to be successful, it will need clear terms of reference and bring together officials from relevant government bodies, health care providers, representatives of women’s and children’s groups and other civil society organizations and experts working on sexual violence.
It should set clear goals of the investigations, ways of reaching out to all victims, effective measures to secure accountability for these crimes, and mechanisms for the protection, treatment, and care of victims.
Sexual violence survivors should not be left suffering and ashamed. It is the Kenyan authorities who should be ashamed at failing to meet their needs or to prosecute their attackers.