(Nairobi) – The Kenyan government’s response to gender-based violence during the Covid-19 pandemic has been too little, too late, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
The 61-page report, “‘I Had Nowhere to Go’: Violence against Women and Girls during the Covid-19 Pandemic in Kenya,” documents how the Kenyan government’s failure to ensure services to prevent gender-based violence and provide assistance to survivors under its Covid-19 response measures facilitated an increase in sexual and other violence against women and girls. Survivors faced increased harm due to Kenyan authorities’ failure to ensure that they have access to comprehensive, quality, and timely medical treatment; mental health care and protection services; financial assistance; and to properly investigate and prosecute cases.
“The pandemic is not the first time Kenya has witnessed increases in violence against women and girls during crises,” said Agnes Odhiambo, senior women’s rights researcher, and head of the Nairobi office at Human Rights Watch. “The government should have anticipated such an increase, but tragically as in the past, it turned a blind eye and failed to protect women and girls against violence.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed thirteen survivors of gender-based violence, four parents and a relative of girls who experienced such violence, a community activist who is caring for three girls who are survivors, a shelter worker, five representatives of nongovernmental organizations working on gender-based violence, a Kenyan expert on gender-based violence, and officials from POLICARE, the police program to respond to such violence, and the State Department for Gender Affairs. Human Rights Watch also reviewed reports from the government, nongovernmental groups, the United Nations, and the media.
Kenya, like many other countries around the world, experienced an increase in reported cases of physical and sexual violence, including domestic violence, against women and girls during restrictions on mobility to curb the spread of the virus. Even before the pandemic, high levels of violence against women and girls, impunity, and a lack of accountability and services for survivors were ongoing problems in Kenya.
Survivors and others interviewed described sexual abuse, beatings, being thrown out of the home, forced child marriage, and female genital mutilation. Women and girls living in poverty or precarious economic conditions – conditions often created or worsened by the pandemic – were particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment and abuse. Many abusers were close family members, including husbands.
“I was forced to stay in my home when I was facing violence because I had nowhere to go,” Amelia A., a domestic violence survivor in Kisumu County said.
Most survivors interviewed did not report the abuse to the authorities because they did not believe they would receive assistance or believed they would have to pay bribes for assistance and lacked the ability to pay. Those who did report the abuse received inadequate responses from law enforcement and inadequate access to health and legal services, and faced many problems with getting help, including an almost complete lack of access to financial support needed to escape abuse.
Government programs that provided emergency financial support during the Covid-19 crisis, such as an expanded cash transfer program, lacked a strong focus on gender-based violence and had little impact on survivors. Human Rights Watch found that due to corruption and lack of transparency, those most in need did not receive vital Covid-19 cash relief promised by the government.
Survivors also said that access to Kenya’s already severely limited supply of shelters, or safe houses, was made more difficult by the violent enforcement of curfews and lockdowns. The few shelters that exist had staff shortages and could accommodate even fewer people because pandemic rules did not consider staff in the shelter essential workers.
At least six people died from police violence during the first 10 days of Kenya’s dusk-to-dawn curfew. Kenyan authorities also forcibly quarantined thousands of people in facilities that compromised their safety and health. Fear of police brutality and forced quarantine kept survivors from seeking help, Human Rights Watch said. Organizations working with survivors reported that many women felt they had no choice but to stay home with their abusers, rather than seek help and face the heavy-handed police or other security officials enforcing the curfew.
Survivors said it was hard to get emergency medical services during the pandemic. In some cases, survivors, and guardians in cases involving children, were forced to pay for services at government health facilities, where such services should be free. Some were referred by public health officials to private clinics where costs are higher and could not afford to pay. Those interviewed either received very limited mental health support from government institutions, or none.
Police corruption, lack of police capacity to conduct investigations, and interference in and mishandling of cases by police severely reduced survivors’ ability to seek justice. In some cases, the police required survivors to investigate and manage evidence related to their abuse, such as by producing witnesses. The police failed to effectively coordinate with and support survivors to seek prosecution of abusers, often leading the survivors to abandon the effort.
In three cases that proceeded to prosecution, prosecutors failed to adequately inform and support survivors and their guardians so they could effectively participate in the judicial process, shutting them out of virtual court sessions.
Over the last decade and a half, the Kenyan government has enacted several laws to respond to gender-based violence. It has also established guidelines for police, specialized medical staff, and justice officials to respond to such violence. In May President Uhuru Kenyatta pledged millions of dollars to tackle the surge in this violence during the pandemic. But the Covid-19 pandemic tested these reform efforts, and the government response came up short.
“The Kenyan government should urgently live up to its pledges to protect women and girls from violence, including with free medical and mental health services, alternative housing, and justice,” Odhiambo said. “The government needs to build a solid rights-based framework to anticipate how future emergencies will affect women and girls.”