At least 250,000 Kenyans have sought refuge in camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) since violence broke out after a controversial national poll in December 2007, but many women find the risk of sexual attack in the camps just as great as outside.
"Last night, when violence broke out in town, we had only six policemen to guard more than 5,000 IDPs here," said Jesse Njoroge, coordinator of the largest IDP camp in Nakuru, a town about 120km northwest of the capital, Nairobi, where more than 60 people have been killed in violence over the past few days.
IDPs are housed in huge marquees set up on the Nakuru showground, where fairs and other events are held. "We have had threats from local youths, who come armed with bows and arrows, so we have organised 400 camp youths to surround the showground's fence to protect residents."
Police reinforcements over the weekend failed to stop hundreds of youths from invading the camp on Saturday morning; the group was held off by the local sentries, but the attack only highlighted the need for greater protection for IDPs. As young men rushed to fight the invaders, children, women and girls were left on the premises without any protection.
Similar attacks have been reported in North Narok, in the southern Rift Valley, where at least one IDP was killed by a bow and arrow during an attack by local warriors on a camp situated in the district commissioner's compound, right next to the local police station.
Njoroge said at least four women had reported being raped in the Nakuru camp since it was set up on 30 December. "One of the young women was working in my information office and was being extremely uncooperative and uncommunicative. I was becoming very irritated with her until one of her friends revealed that she had actually been raped a few days earlier; obviously she was deeply traumatised."
Despite the fact that the women could remember and even identify their attackers, none of them had sought medical attention or legal redress for the crimes against them. "The women all missed the 72-hour window during which they could receive medical protection from HIV and sexually transmitted diseases, and have medical evidence gathered for legal prosecution of rapists," Njoroge said.
Camp volunteers said the number of women who had suffered sexual assaults was likely to be higher than reported because there was a very poor culture of reporting rapes, even in peaceful times.
"Women generally do not come forward to report rape because they are often victimised and treated as criminals themselves," said Kefa Magenyi, an IDP coordinator for the National Council of Churches of Kenya, based in Nakuru. "They may be disowned by their families and husbands and wind up destitute if they do."
Staff at Nakuru Provincial General Hospital said they had not treated a single case of sexual assault or rape since the violence broke out.
Although women with infants are housed separately at the Nakuru showground, a loose arrangement intended to segregate male and female IDPs is not strictly followed. A similar arrangement exists for the toilets, but a visit to the grounds revealed that men and women were sharing these facilities as well.
|This is the first time Kenya has seen this volume of IDPs in camps, so it may take time to put all these measures in place|
"A lot of sensitisation is needed so people setting up camps can understand that safe areas need to be created for girls and women to sleep, and reporting mechanisms for sex attacks need to be put in place and publicised," said Florence Gachanja, national programme officer for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in Kenya.
Learning on the job
"The trouble is that this is the first time Kenya has seen this volume of IDPs in camps, so it may take time to put all these measures in place," Gachanja commented. "Also, there is a lot of suspicion and mistrust in the camps, so reporting may also be difficult." She said the camps needed to be well-lit, and women needed to be protected when they went to fetch firewood and water.
Njoroge said at least one of the four rapes reported at the Nakuru showground had been perpetrated by an NGO staff member. "In the emergency situation we are dealing with it is proving difficult to vet all the staff, and we also have such a high number of volunteers."
Another worrying development was the tendency for IDP women to engage in transactional sex. "We have noticed that some girls are having sex in exchange for money and unga [maize flour] or other products," Njoroge said. "We are trying to screen people entering the camp; many are genuine well-wishers bringing donations, but others have different motives."
The Ministry of Health supplies free condoms at the camp and has also set up a clinic equipped with post-exposure prophylactics, but he noted that the disposal of condoms was poor, and people left them lying around the grounds rather than throwing them into latrines or dust-bins.
The Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS) has several counsellors on hand to provide psychosocial support to survivors of sexual assault, and has begun teaching 'life-skills' that discouraged transactional sex and promoted safe sex in healthy relationships.
The UN, the KRCS and other agencies involved in protection are encouraging the use of guidelines for appropriate interventions to prevent and handle gender-based violence laid out by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee, a mechanism for coordinating humanitarian assistance by key UN and non-UN partners.