The fight against rape has not been easy

FATMA ANYANZWA, 64, made it to the headlines in the early 1990s for her tenacious fight against rape. She founded the first anti-rape organisation in Kenya and bore the brunt of standing in the frontline against rape and assault. She spoke to NJOKI CHEGE.

I volunteered to co-ordinate activities at the National Women’s Council of Kenya in 1985. During the UN Decade for women (1976-1985), I was exposed to Fida-Kenya and issues affecting women globally.

Fatma Anyanzwa during the interview. [PHOTOS: JOSEPH KIPTARUS/STANDARD]

I started working for Fida in 1990 and participated in the production of a legal book, A Woman’s Guide to Personal Law. I am also the author of the book Sex Abuse. Currently, I am finalising on the second edition of the book titled Sex Abuse & Aids.

I was still working with Fida when the Multi-party Kanu Review Commission invited Kenyans to a forum at the KICC. I attended the forum and sought a chance to speak. Few had the courage to do this, but I spoke because I was passionate about my society. Everyone was amazed at my courage and from then on, I knew there was no turning back.

In those days, Fida did not have a programme for violence against women and children — it only focused on property rights for women and divorce. I was concerned by the escalating rape cases. I, therefore, decided to start the Kenya Anti-rape organisation, which was registered in 1992 to help rape victims cope with their situation.

At around the same time, 19 students from St Kizito Girls’ High School in Meru County died of suffocation after being attacked and raped by boys from a neighbouring school. This incident made me realise the magnitude of our work as an organisation.

We trained anti-rape ambassadors on how to handle rape and posted them to work at different grassroots levels. Our work also involve working closely with the administration and social workers at the grassroots.

Rape cases have been there since time immemorial — only they have been under-reported. Since people are more open about the issue today, it seems like there are more rape cases than before.

The fight against rape was not an easy one. We were not only fighting rapists, but also a judicial system that could not deliver justice to victims.

We once handled a case of three schoolgirls who had been raped by two Asian factory workers in Ruiru. The offenders, unfortunately, went scot-free. We demanded justice. In 1993, I camped outside the high court demanding justice for the victims — much to the then regime’s chagrin. We demonstrated and stood our ground. This resulted to my arrest and that of two other activists. We were charged for "intentionally acting in disrespect of judicial proceedings".

My arrest

A delegation of 21 lawyers — led by Gichugu MP Martha Karua filed a petition against my arrest and we were released. I, however, sustained injuries during my arrest as I was assaulted by the police. This revealed just how difficult it was to get justice at that time.

During this trying period, the international community signed petitions urging the respect of the Kenyan Constitution that guaranteed freedom of expression. The support was overwhelming. The petition indicated that my trial had no basis in law and the charges were dropped. The petitions were signed in Vienna Austria and at The Hague.

What culminated my fight? Prior to the urbanisation of Nairobi, Kibera was a relatively secure neighbourhood. I recall my childhood days living in a safe environment, guarded from evils like rape. However, due to the influx of people, unemployment set in and many people resorted to crime.

Child rape

Kibera was really affected by child rape and assault became rampant. Young women and girls who had been raped would come to me for help. I would take them to hospital and to the police station where they would record statements. I would later refer them to counsellors.

Impunity has cost Kenya a lot. We are witnessing several rape cases that go unpunished and the perpetrators walking away scot-free. There is no respect for the law. I am glad, however, that with the new Constitution, rape victims will get justice.

The HIV and Aids prevalence has posed a challenge as more girls and women are being exposed to the virus as a result of rape. This has been propelled by the fact that most victims seek help when it’s too late. It is possible to counter these challenges with the right systems and structures.

The journey towards total eradication of rape is not and has never been a smooth sail. Kenya has a long way to go. When people learn to respect themselves and the law, then rape cases will be fewer.

During the 1997 General Elections, I vied against Raila Odinga for the Lang’ata parliamentary seat on a Kenya Social Congress ticket. I was also the late George Anyona’s presidential running mate.

At that time, few women dared to go into politics because of the propaganda that defined it then. I rallied women to vote for me because I understood their problems. However, I lost the election abut nevertheless, I discovered that anything is possible if you stand your ground.

I am currently overseeing the Kenya Grassroots Leaders Network in Kibera.

It comprises women leaders at grassroots level collaborating with local authority, government, religious organisations and NGOs. Fida-Kenya has trained them and they mainly work to sensitise women about rape.

I am also mentoring a youth group — The New Visionary Youth Group in Kibera. They deal with environmental issues and sensitise the community on the best practices in environmental conservation.

I also oversee a day-care and child centre — Stawi Junior Child Centre for children below eight years. Most children here have grown up in hostile environments and gone through sexual abuse and child labour.

Women’s agenda

I hope to advance the cause of women — although I am about to hand over the reins of leadership to younger and more energetic women. We hope to form a network of women that cuts across barriers of ethnicity, status quo and religion to push forward the women’s agenda.

I have conducted workshops nationally and internationally on Gender Violence Strategies Research and Interventions. This targeted victims, public, NGOs, state institutions and enforcement agencies such as judges, prosecutors and police.

Many youths and children are living in deplorable conditions. My aim is to see them have a bright future. It is not right for me to educate my children and leave it at that — it is important that I take that extra mile to better the lives of other children.