Parliament a let-down to war on gender violence

Recently the world convened in Nairobi to celebrate and reflect on the progress made in the realisation of women’s rights, particularly sexual and reproductive health rights since the Cairo Programme of Action set forth during the International Conference for Population and Development (ICPD) 25 years ago.

Whereas notable progress has been made in the reduction of maternal mortality and unmet family planning needs, nothing much can be said when it comes to gender-based violence, particularly sexual violence.

The wave of #MeToo and #TimeIsUp movements highlight the pervasive nature of the menace that continues to subdue the gains made in creating equitable spaces and equality for all.

Through these movements, a critical mass of survivors found the courage to name and shame their perpetrators. We have come a long way from when Tarana Burke gave us the language to speak the previously unspeakable to say ‘MeToo’.

This pushback against male sexual claims on women’s bodies has created space for a global dialogue on what would previously have been whispered warnings that women gave each other.

Yet this courage to speak and the global conversation on sexual harassment and abuse has different national contexts and it is important that we are cognisant of how for some women, speaking up has had particularly negative consequences.

In Kenya, the news media have been awash with cases of women killed by their intimate partners. An analysis by the Counting Dead Women in Kenya found that 82 women died in the hands of their partners between January 1 and November 14, 2019. In 2018, a pregnant Sharon Otieno, a Rongo University student was killed after she was allegedly raped. Migori Governor Okoth Obado is in court over the murder.

On April 9, another student Ivy Wangechi’s life was cut short. A man has been charged with the killing. Both Ivy and Sharon were vilified on social media for being “slay queens” to justify their murder - a classical case of victim-blaming that has been constant in the vicious wave of violent and deliberate killing of women and girls.

These statistics add on to other forms of gender violence across the country. Cases of rape increased from 817 in 2017 to 979 in 2018, while defilement cases increased from 4,056 in 2017 to 5,506 in 2018. According to Kenya Domestic Household Survey 2014, 38 per cent of women between ages 15-59 have experienced physical violence while 14 per cent have experienced sexual violence.

These are just but a few of the reported incidences. Many victims shy away from reporting abuse to authorities for fear of stigma and re-traumatisation.

The unfortunate reality is that the criminal justice system offers little hope of justice for women survivors of sexual violence with only 3,318 of reported crimes prosecuted and a measly 657 convictions, according to a report submitted to United Nations Committee Against Torture in 2018.

Breaking the silence that shrouds sexual harassment may be global, but the backlash is local and we need to work together across borders to help women address the unique nature of the backlash they face.

Women will not be safe from sexual abuse and violence in a country that violates their right to representation because sexual harassment of women by men is about power.

Since 2010, Parliament has never had the requisite constitutionally mandated number of women legislators and despite various court orders, continues to refuse to enact laws to ensure women’s representation in Parliament as guaranteed in the Constitution.

A Parliament that will break the law to keep women out of the House will never pass laws on sexual harassment and for the protection of women.

The State, by maintaining bastions of male power and privilege, is therefore sending a strong message about what is an acceptable role for women.

Today, there are no laws in Kenya that exclusively define what constitutes sexual harassment. The Sexual Offences Act 2006 and the Employment Act 2007 only define sexual harassment at workplace where a person in position of authority make unwelcomed sexual advances to his juniors.

It is not sexual harassment unless the sexual advancement is persistent (more than once) and is done by a person in authority over you/public office and it must be tied to your job or a service. It further only abhors such harassment if it touches on sexual organs. Sex texting, licking or groping are all not covered under the law.

As the Centre for Rights Education and Awareness (CREAW) we have been at the forefront demanding the full implementation of Article 27 on Equality. We believe that women’s rights are immediate rights, not promissory rights for some indeterminate future.

We also know that rights are part of an ecosystem; they cannot stand alone. Violations of women’s right to representation in Parliament and Cabinet makes room for violation of women’s other rights.

We continue to educate communities to provide a supportive ecosystem and dismantle the silence around sexual harassment and other forms of gender violence. We are driven by the mantra that survivors should and must be allowed to speak their truth to heal and restore their dignity.

As citizens, we have the duty to continuously speak up and hold authorities accountable for the inconsistencies and omissions in the legal and justice system that award perpetrators for committing heinous crimes.

We have the duty to speak truth to power, disrupt and change attitudes, beliefs and behaviours that endanger the lives of women and girls; only then, can we achieve zero sexual and gender based violence and keep the promise of the ICPD of equality and rights for all.

Ms Ogutu is a communications specialist