Sexual violence is increasingly prevalent in Kenya and police statistics show that more than 2,800 cases of rape were reported in 2004 - an increase of close to 500 compared to the previous year.
Domestic violence is also a serious problem in the East African nation. A demographic health survey carried out by the Ministry of Planning in 2003 revealed that at least half of all Kenyan women had experienced violence since the age of 15, with close family members among the perpetrators.
The chilling statistics, however, do not tell the full story of the emotional devastation of individual rape victims. Take the case of a woman in her early twenties we shall call Rachael.
She recalls the evening of 13 February with horror. As she walked the short distance between the bus stop and her home in Nairobi's impoverished Eastlands, four men brutally and repeatedly gang raped her.
"One man grabbed me and showed me a large knife. He said if I screamed, he would kill me. They dragged me to a nearby bush and each of the men raped me. Then three of them left me with the one who had grabbed me first. He kept me there for two hours and continued raping me."
After the attack, Rachael found her way to a friend's home nearby where she related the harrowing story. "I was in a daze at the time. Thankfully, my friends were thinking more clearly - they gave me 400 shillings [US $5.45], which I used to get to the Nairobi Women's Hospital," she recalls.
"After my rape, my only thought was that I should commit suicide, my life was over," Mary, another survivor of rape, told IRIN at the Nairobi Women’s Hospital where she is a patient.
She had been attacked in the pre-dawn hours of 15 January as she made her way from her home in Dandora, another slum area in Nairobi, to Jomo Kenyatta international Airport, where she works as a casual labourer.
"After the rape, I was having memory blackouts and thought I was abnormal. But through counselling, I discovered that it is common and there is nothing wrong with me."
Following her attack, the only person Mary confided in was her sister. She was too afraid of being stigmatised to tell anyone else in her family.
"What if the rapist had made me pregnant or had given me HIV, who would believe it was because of rape?. When I went to the police, I was asked to tell my story in public. They did not have a separate room to question me. Some of the policemen were cruel, asking whether I was sure I had been raped and one even called me a prostitute for walking alone in the dark," Mary said.
Wife beating commonplace
The executive director of the Centre for Rehabilitation of Abused Women (CREAW), which provides legal aid to abused women, told IRIN: "We need to sensitise the population about the criminal nature of violence against women."
Anne Njogu went on to say that many of the Kenyan cultures do not view sexual violence as crime. That is why Kenya has "such a high prevalence of domestic and sexual offences against women".
Moreover, Kenya has no law that specifically prohibits spousal rape, and wife beating is commonplace - and often condoned - in many cultures.
In a disturbing new trend, there has been an increase in incidents of abuse by men who target minors for sex in the belief that it will make them immune from contracting HIV. Some men, already infected with HIV/AIDS, reportedly rape young girls believing that sex with a virgin will cure them.
Nowhere to turn
Women who have been sexually or domestically abused are often too scared by the stigma attached to the crime to tell their families, let alone report their attacks to the relevant authorities.
"Stigma is such a big issue in many cultures. Women and girls blame themselves and fear that they will be ostracised from society if they admit to being raped, and they often are outcasts if they do so," Njogu said.
Njogu spoke of the "double rape" women have to undergo when they are questioned by insensitive police officers, themselves operating with the cultural biases that condone rape.
Amnesty International, in a 2002 report entitled, "Rape - The Invisible Crime", said victims of rape in Kenya had an enormous problem to persuade the police and prosecuting authorities that they had actually been raped. The victim must prove that she did not consent to the act, or that her agreement was obtained through threats.
Amnesty quoted a case in Kiambu, central Kenya, in which a magistrate reportedly freed a church leader accused of defiling a six-year-old girl on the grounds that he was a "married man with children and, therefore, incapable of committing such an offence".
Inching towards a solution
Although the situation of women and girls in Kenya who suffer sexual or domestic abuse remains dire, there are glimmers of hope.
In April, the National Assembly passed a motion by nominated member of parliament, Njoki Ndun'gu, allowing the introduction of the Sexual Offences Bill, which proposes reforming the law and enforcing harsher punishments for sex offenders.
"The bill seeks to reform our existing laws, which are archaic. The existing laws do not provide for crimes such sexual abuse of men and boys, the transmission of HIV/AIDS or paedophilia," Ndun'gu told IRIN.
"We are proposing the creation of new sexual offences and also the establishment of minimum sentences to act as deterrents to would-be offenders," she added.
The police, in an effort to crack down on sexual and domestic violence against women and children, converted one of the city's oldest police stations, Kilimani, into an all-female station in 2004, exclusively handling cases of sexual assault on women and girls. The idea is to have the station manned by female police officers with special training in dealing with gender based violence.
The establishment of the Nairobi Women's Hospital is another step towards assisting women who have been subjected to untold abuse by strangers or people close to them. While the hospital provides medical and psychological support, there are a few other organisations that deal with other aspects of gender-based violence.
Free shelter for battered women
The Nairobi Women's Hospital, in operation since 2001, is a private institution that specialises in obstetric and gynaecological care, but also provides general medical services. It has a Gender violence Recovery Centre (GVRC), which provides free services - including lab tests, medication, counselling and referrals - to survivors of rape and sexual violence.
"When we get a new patient, they see a doctor and get emergency counselling. We do tests to check for HIV or pregnancy, then administer the PEP [HIV-post exposure prophylaxis] and several other tests," Sam Thenya, chief executive of the hospital, told IRIN.
"The patient gets at least four sessions of counselling and can join, if they wish, a support group for people who have undergone similar attacks," he added.
The GVRC, the only one of its kind in East Africa, treats up to 15 survivors of rape and domestic violence every day. Since its inception four years ago, it has treated more than 4,500 patients.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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