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Let ending violence against women be a priority for all

COMMENTARY
By | December 5th 2009

Michael Ranneberger

On September 28, the world awoke to fresh reports of unspeakable violence against women. In Guinea, the "berets rouges," the Presidential guard, raped women of all ages - in groups, with weapons, and with such brutality that many who weren’t immediately killed died soon afterwards of their injuries.

For a decade in the Democratic Republic of Congo, soldiers have raped and mutilated women as a deliberate strategy to destroy communities.

But gender-based violence (GBV) is not limited to war zones. Girls and women, solely because of their sex, are targets for violence at every point in their lives. The forms vary widely: from female genital mutilation, to inadequate healthcare and nutrition for girls, to child marriage, "wife-beating," trafficking, so-called "honor" killings, wife-inheritance, neglect and ostracism of widows….and this is not an exhaustive list.

Equality

Punishing perpetrators is critical, but not in itself sufficient. Gender-based violence springs from the continuing low status of women and girls compared to men and boys around the world, and from the general acceptance of inter-personal violence in society. That is why it is vital to work towards women’s complete equality in every sphere of life, and to spread awareness of this crime to men and women in all walks of life.

Each year since 1991, the world has decreed 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence. The 16 days start with November 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, and end December 10, International Human Rights Day, to underscore the idea that violence committed against women because of their sex is a global pandemic and a fundamental violation of human rights.

President Barack Obama and Secretary Hillary Clinton have made this issue a top priority for American foreign policy. Obama’s decision to create a position of Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, and appointing the renowned Melanne Verveer to the position, is unprecedented, and reflects the elevated importance of these issues to the President and his entire Administration. We all strongly believe that women are the key to progress and prosperity in the 21st century. When women and girls are marginalised and mistreated, families and nations do not progress. When they can exercise their rights and have equal opportunities in education, health care, employment, and political participation, they lift up their families, communities, and nations.

Kenya is not immune to this problem. Violence against women increased significantly during the post-election violence, especially in IDP camps. The Nairobi Women’s Hospital Gender Based Recovery Unit reported counseling 1,710 survivors in the IDP camps. Between Dec 27, 2007 and February 29, last year the unit reported that it treated 443 survivors of GBV, and 80 per cent were rape or defilement cases.

While the number of women reporting to hospitals and police is on the rise, the vast majority of these victims still go untreated and undocumented. Cultural norms, lack of awareness, pressure from community and family members, and widespread insensitivity on the part of officials all contribute to the fact that most abused women suffer in silence.

Educate

To its credit, the Government of Kenya has taken steps in past years to curb violence against women and to educate men and women on the need to change the cultural norms that promote such violence. For example, the Sexual Offences Act of 2006 increased maximum sentences for a variety of sexual crimes, many of which were not previously addressed in legislation. But more needs to be done, and urgently, to ensure that women who have suffered from sexual assault can report that abuse to law enforcement, receive immediate medical and psychosocial treatment, and obtain prompt and meaningful investigations and prosecutions of the crime.

My team is working with the Kenyan government and non-governmental partners to address the causes of violence against women and to mitigate its considerable effects on women, families and society. We are strengthening the capacity of police, prosecutors, and judges to understand and prosecute gender-based criminal conduct. We are also supporting health, legal, and social organisations that provide assistance to survivors of GBV. One goal is to make it possible for hospital nurses — not just doctors — to perform forensic exams of women who have been raped, and to present legal testimony on their findings in court.

I call on the Government of Kenya and the Kenyan people to renew our commitment to work together on these critically important issues. Specifically, we want to see the government invest more in improving police and judicial capabilities to properly process GBV cases, to improve outreach and provide education centers, and to create "one-stop" centers in appropriate locales in which victims can meet with law enforcement, medical and counseling personnel.

Let ending violence against women become a priority for us all.

The writer is US Ambassador to Kenya.

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