Break the silence: Empower and spark change to end sexual assault in Kenya

Survivors of Gender-based violence Caroline Moraa and Julian Nekesa during public awareness of the vice in Kitengela on February 27, 2024. [David Gichuru, Standard]

Every year, April marks the onset of Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM), an annual initiative dedicated to fostering awareness and education about sexual violence worldwide. This concerted effort aims to shed light on the myriad forms of sexual assault, including rape, defilement, incest, and sexual harassment while advocating for prevention strategies.

The genesis of SAAM can be traced back to the "Take Back the Night" marches in England in 1975, where women rallied against the scourge of sexual violence, particularly experienced during the night. This grassroots movement later evolved into a global campaign spanning an entire month, dedicated to speaking out against sexual violence.

Despite the significance of SAAM, the reality in many parts of the world, including Kenya, is stark. A staggering 70 per cent of sexual assault cases in Kenya remain unreported, primarily due to stigma and fear of retaliation. Within the country, instances of sexual assault within the church, particularly involving Catholic priests, are sadly not uncommon. These cases often fail to elicit the necessary outrage and do not get a frenzied reaction and neither do the leaders get defrocked or expelled thus evading any significant repercussions.

The institutionalized nature of religion further complicates matters, as victims may face intimidation and threats when attempting to report abuse. The lack of swift and decisive action from religious leadership, who are quick to denounce other crimes, exacerbates the problem.

In a recent case in Mombasa, a clergy convicted of indecently assaulting a 16-year-old girl, was handed a lenient sentence requiring him to educate his congregation monthly on the Sexual Offences Act. This appeal decision, which overturned an earlier 7-year sentence, sparked an outcry from human rights advocates, highlighting the vulnerability of young women and girls within religious settings.

The irony of entrusting sexual offenders with the responsibility of educating others on sexual offence laws is glaring. It raises questions about the assumption of their understanding of the law and the potential harm posed by their reintegration into society.

The mandatory minimum sentences under the Sexual Offences Act of 2006 acknowledge the serious nature of sexual offences. However, in various precedents that claw back on the gains made in the fights against sexual abuse, courts have declared the minimum sentences unconstitutional. In an ongoing matter at the apex court, the Director of Public Prosecution seeks to reverse the decision of the Court of Appeal declaring the mandatory minimum sentences unconstitutional.

A comprehensive study is urgently needed to address the alarming rise in sexual abuse cases particularly within religious institutions. Religious leaders must break their silence and implement robust strategies to tackle this pervasive issue. Every stakeholder in the justice system must fulfil their duty to ensure justice for victims of sexual offences. It's imperative to create a society where survivors are empowered to seek justice and perpetrators are held accountable for their actions.

Kavutha Mutua is an Advocate of the High Court of Kenya and a Human Rights Champion