10 December 2012

Kenya: Women Bear Brunt of Sexual Violence


With all the political drama in Kenya at the moment - the coalitions, the deals, the deadlines - one might be forgiven for thinking that politics is all about politicians. It is not of course. It is about people - and there is no better day to remember that, than today, international human rights day.

The concept of human rights should provide protection from harm for us all, from the smallest baby, to the oldest grandmother; from the humble policeman serving his country, to the grandest politician.

But concepts, even ones as lofty as human rights, in general don't directly protect people - systems do. And there's one, very large group of people who systems, whether they are systems for justice, security or health, often leave behind. Women.

The vast majority of violence against women around the world goes unreported and unpunished. Many women bear the scars of violence without treatment, physical or psychological, and without the social help they need to avoid a repeat of the crime. From domestic violence, to the use of rape as a means to force migration, sexual crimes against women are over-looked far too often.

In May this year, the UK's Foreign Secretary, William Hague, launched a Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative. The initiative aims to help support countries and the international community to build systems to prevent sexual violence. When violence does happen, it aims to end impunity through successful prosecutions.

As part of the initiative the UK has brought together a team of 70 international experts, including lawyers, psychologists, doctors, forensic experts, and specialists in the care and protection of survivors and witnesses, who will first go to Syria.

This international, anti-impunity squad will step in when systems to protect women have totally broken down. They will be deployed to areas of conflict to support the UN and civil society to investigate allegations of sexual violence, to gather evidence and help build national capacity.

It may also seem far from home, but all countries have to work hard to make justice and security work better for women, if we are to make human rights a reality.

In Kenya, according to the latest national Demographic Health Survey, published in 2008/9, twelve percent of Kenyan women aged15-49 had their first sexual intercourse forced against their will.

More recent findings by the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights are equally shocking. A Commission investigation this year, on sexual and reproductive rights, found that one in every five Kenyan women had experienced sexual violence in their lives.

It reported a 'culture of impunity in relation to sexual abuse' in Kenya, citing common use of informal dispute mechanisms - such as elders meetings- to address crimes such as rape, which ultimately went unpunished.

However, important progress is being made to tackle this problem in Kenya. In July, the President signed into law amendments to the Sexual Offences Act, which now make it easier for women to report sexual offences. In May this year the Chief Justice launched a new Sexual Offenders Register.

The Register, which is held securely by the Chief Registrar of the Judiciary, enables employers to establish whether potential employees have been convicted of any sexual offences.

I hope the Kenyan Sexual Offences Task Force will maintain and build this momentum, and, importantly, as we approach March, will work to prevent a repeat of the spike in sexual offences that was seen at the last election.

The UK too hopes to make a contribution to ending impunity for sexual offences in Kenya. Today, working with the Federation of Women Lawyers, FIDA, the British High Commission will be funding two legal aid clinics for victims of sexual violence in informal settlements in Nairobi and Kisumu.

These clinics will provide women with information about what they should do in case of a sexual crime, and for those who have already been affected, how they can seek justice and access the counselling and health services they need. We will help FIDA to provide follow up services for the women who are willing and able to take their cases to court.

Along with our international contribution, through the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative, these legal aid clinics are a practical demonstration of the seriousness with which we take women's rights.

We will stand side by side with Kenya to end violence against women and to end impunity of perpetrators around the world, not just today, on International Human Rights Day, but all year round.

Dr Christian Turner is the British High Commissioner to Kenya.

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