As the election season heats up, the deep-seated and ever-present apprehension related to violence against women and girls has once again reared its ugly head. This has been a concern in every election, and will continue to be so unless urgent and long-lasting interventions are sought.
Every election year, various stakeholders and agencies have chronicled incidents where female candidates have either been sexually, physically or verbally assaulted by male rivals and/or their agents. Following Kenya’s disputed elections of 2007 and 2008, officials estimated that at least 900 cases of sexual violence occurred, with women being targeted on the basis of ethnicity.
In the run-up to the 2017 elections, female political aspirants faced harassment, intimidation and abuse, both in person and online. Millie Odhiambo had her house burnt down and her bodyguard killed, Eunice Wambui was physically assaulted, and Esther Passaris was held hostage at a university by a group of male students who demanded money from her.
This unfortunately is not surprising, given that the normalisation of violence against women and girls in Kenya seems to advance each year, setting new shocking and deplorable levels.
It also explains why the International Federation for Human Rights and the Kenya Human Rights Commission in a report issued on January 18, 2022, warned that unless the government takes urgent and concrete measures, the sexual and gender-based violence that characterised past elections will likely be repeated in the run-up to and during the August 9 general election.
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As bad as all of this sounds, in many ways, the situation in Kenya simply reflects global trends. In March 2021, the World Health Organisation took the unusual but necessary step to describe violence against women as “devastatingly pervasive”.
Why? One needs look no further than the fact that, in the 21st century, one in three women globally is subjected to physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner or sexual violence from a non-partner.
Given the omnipresence of violence, and the role treaties play in driving change, it is clear that the current international framework meets neither women nor girls’ needs. This violence is at once an economic as well as a social disaster. Costs associated with this violence (reduced productivity, strained judicial, social service, education, and healthcare systems) equal 5.5 per cent of the total global economy. And herein lies the opportunity for the next President.
Every Woman, a global coalition of more than 1,700 women’s rights advocates in 128 countries that I am a part of, is working with activists, civil society organisations, and UN member states to secure a treaty specific to eliminating violence against women and girls.
Grounded in an analysis of the normative, geographic, and enforcement gaps in the existing international legal framework, Every Women is drawing attention to the fact that, at the global level, there is no specific legally binding instrument on violence against women.
Despite the existence of regional mechanisms, 75 per cent of the world’s women, primarily black and brown women, lack access to a treaty that specifically addresses violence against women. Existing monitoring mechanisms do not adequately hold countries accountable for ending violence against women and girls and suffer from a lack of resources and inefficient systems. This contributes to high levels of impunity. The new treaty would mandate that governments implement a package of proven interventions, which will be monitored by a clear, metrics-based scorecard.
Every Woman’s initiative for a new treaty specific to violence against women has gained momentum in the last year. In his address to the UN General Assembly in September 2021, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari called for collective global action through a treaty. This was echoed again two months later in remarks by the then African Union Chairperson and Democratic Republic of the Congo President Félix Tshisekedi.
Recently, Organisation of American States Secretary-General Luis Almagro and President Iván Duque Márquez of Colombia also issued a call for a new global treaty to end violence against women and girls. Together with similar calls from other regions, this bodes well for change.
It is common knowledge that Kenya plays an active facilitation role within the United Nations and its various mechanisms and bodies, and is viewed internationally as a regional leader. By joining the call for a global treaty on violence against women, Kenya’s stature as a leading light in East Africa will continue to grow.
By including Kenya’s voice in the call for a global treaty on violence against women, the next President has the perfect opportunity to lead, with passion and compassion, the change needed to end violence against women and girls not just in Kenya, but the world over.