Panafrican News Agency

Coronavirus: Rights group criticises Kenya's response to gender-based violence during pandemic

Nairobi, Kenya (PANA ) – The Kenyan government’s response to gender-based violence during the COVID-19 pandemic has been too little, too late, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report released today.

The 61-page report, "'I had nowhere to go':  Violence aainst women and girls during COVID-29 pandemic in Kenya." documents how the Kenyan government’s failure to ensure services to prevent gender-based violence and provide assistance to survivors under its CCOVID-19 response measures facilitated an increase in sexual and other violence against women and girls.

HRW said on its website that survivors faced increased harm due to Kenyan authorities’ failure to ensure that they have access to comprehensive, quality, and timely medical treatment; mental health care and protection services; financial assistance; and to properly investigate and prosecute cases.

“The pandemic is not the first time Kenya has witnessed increases in violence against women and girls during crises,” said Agnes Odhiambo, senior women’s rights researcher, and head of the Nairobi office at HRW. “The government should have anticipated such an increase, but tragically as in the past, it turned a blind eye and failed to protect women and girls against violence.”

HRW said it interviewed 13 survivors of gender-based violence, four parents and a relative of girls who experienced such violence.

It also interviews a community activist who is caring for three girls who are survivors, a shelter worker, five representatives of nongovernmental organisations working on gender-based violence, a Kenyan expert on gender-based violence, and officials from POLICARE, the police programme to respond to such violence, and the State Department for Gender Affairs.

HRW said it also reviewed reports from the government, nongovernmental groups, the United Nations, and the media.

The report noted that Kenya, like many other countries around the world, experienced an increase in reported cases of physical and sexual violence, including domestic violence, against women and girls during restrictions on mobility to curb the spread of the virus.

Even before the pandemic, high levels of violence against women and girls, impunity, and a lack of accountability and services for survivors were ongoing problems in Kenya.

The report said survivors and others interviewed described sexual abuse, beatings, being thrown out of the home, forced child marriage, and female genital mutilation.

Women and girls living in poverty or precarious economic conditions – conditions often created or worsened by the pandemic – were particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment and abuse. Many abusers were close family members, including husbands.

“I was forced to stay in my home when I was facing violence because I had nowhere to go,” Amelia A., a domestic violence survivor in Kisumu County said.

HRW said most survivors interviewed did not report the abuse to the authorities because they did not believe they would receive assistance or believed they would have to pay bribes for assistance and lacked the ability to pay.

Those who did report the abuse received inadequate responses from law enforcement and inadequate access to health and legal services, and faced many problems with getting help, including an almost complete lack of access to financial support needed to escape abuse, the report said.

Government programmes that provided emergency financial support during the COVID-19 crisis, such as an expanded cash transfer programme, lacked a strong focus on gender-based violence and had little impact on survivors.

HRW said it found that due to corruption and lack of transparency, those most in need did not receive vital COVID-19 cash relief promised by the government.

Survivors also said that access to Kenya’s already severely limited supply of shelters, or safe houses, was made more difficult by the violent enforcement of curfews and lockdowns.

The few shelters that exist had staff shortages and could accommodate even fewer people because pandemic rules did not consider staff in the shelter essential workers.

At least six people died from police violence during the first 10 days of Kenya’s dusk-to-dawn curfew. Kenyan authorities also forcibly quarantined thousands of people in facilities that compromised their safety and health.

Fear of police brutality and forced quarantine kept survivors from seeking help, HRW said.

“The Kenyan government should urgently live up to its pledges to protect women and girls from violence, including with free medical and mental health services, alternative housing, and justice,” Odhiambo said. “The government needs to build a solid rights-based framework to anticipate how future emergencies will affect women and girls.”

-0- PANA MA 22Sept2021