Garissa — How Kenyan police have handled the brutal gang rape of a Busia County schoolgirl has sparked popular outrage and prompted many to question the effectiveness of Kenya's laws in deterring sexual assault.
Kenya's Daily Nation earlier this month broke the story about the 16-year-old's rape on the night of June 26th.
According to the newspaper, the girl, only identified as Liz, was walking home from her grandfather's funeral when a group of six men beat and raped her. They later dumped the bleeding and unconscious teenager in a sewage ditch.
After surviving a night in the latrine, Liz was rescued by local residents and later identified three of her alleged rapists. Police responded by ordering the three men to cut grass around the police station, and later set them free.
Because of the repeated rapes the girl was subjected to, she developed a fistula, causing her to leak stool and urine. She is also now confined to a wheelchair because of an injury to her spinal cord as a result of the men throwing her into the 20-foot pit.
On October 9th, Busia Police Commander Halima Mohamed vowed to find out why local officers responded the way they did.
The Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR) and International Federation of Women Lawyers said Thursday (October 17th) they were suing the government for "failure to protect" the teenager, Kenya's Daily Nation reported.
One of many
This case is just one of many reported in Kenya annually, where incidents of rape are on the rise, according to a Kenya Police Crime Report published in June.
Between January and May this year, 338 rapes were reported compared with 297 reported during the same period in 2011 and 332 in the first five months 2012, according to the report. Rapes of children account for 78% of all reported rape cases, the statistics also show.
Yet the number is likely much higher because many cases go unreported, said Saida Ali, executive director of Kenya's Coalition on Violence Against Women.
Many victims do not come forward because of the stigma associated with rape and because they suspect that "police will fail to investigate their complaints", she told Sabahi.
In 2007 and 2008, after minimum sentencing rules for rape cases were introduced with passage of the Sexual Offences Act, rape cases dropped sharply as people became aware of the law, she said.
The law stipulates that a person convicted of committing rape faces a sentence of ten years to life in prison. A person convicted of "defiling" a child aged 11 or younger can receive a life sentence, while someone who defiles a child aged 12 to 15 can receive at least 20 years in prison, according to the law.
While the law imposes strict minimum sentences, it is not leading to enough arrests in rape cases because many police officers treat such complaints with a dismissive or casual attitude, Ali said. Poorly handled police investigations have resulted in many offenders being set free and being emboldened to rape again, she said.
"Some police officers still ask parents, guardians and victims of rape some [inappropriate] questions," she said. "Such questions only make the victims coil in shame and opt not to pursue their cases."
Difficulties investigating rape cases
Responding to the criticism, Deputy Inspector General of Police Grace Kaindi said that all police stations are staffed with units that deal specially with cases of violence against women and children.
Police are limited in investigating rape cases effectively, she acknowledged, citing a variety of reasons.
"It is a fact that most of the officers manning the department have not received training on management of gender-based crimes because of minimal funding," Kaindi told Sabahi. "Some also lack skills to handle victims of sexual violence like counselling."
"We are, however, working on that to ensure effective delivery of services to the victims and their guardians," she said, adding that the police force has partnered with several groups and institutions to provide officers training in this area.
The force also is weeding out officers who do not act on reported rape cases.
"We have a few bad officers on the force but we will take action, which will include sacking them," Kaindi said. "We are investigating the Busia case to establish who was culpable. Heads will definitely roll."
Police also face other obstacles that impede rape investigations, such as lack of co-operation from the community and interference from elders, Kaindi said.
In addition, unofficial practices of resolving rape cases interfere as well with the course of brining perpetrators to justice, she said, such as resorting to maslah -- a tradition common in northern Kenya, where the family of a victim of violence receives monetary compensation from the offender's family.
"In some cases, reports are made long after the incidence. Some of the communities are very discreet, that when there is prosecutable evidence, family members and the victims insist that nothing happened," she said.
Where to seek help
Despite the lax enforcement of laws, victims of rape can seek refuge at several centres set up by the government and non-governmental organisations.
These centres provide specialised treatment and psychological support to victims, said Ali, executive director of Kenya's Coalition on Violence against Women.
"The trauma for rape victims can be overwhelming, but in a way the referral hospitals are playing a role in comforting them," she said.
One such referral hospital is the Gender Violence Recovery Centre, which provides free post-rape medication and counselling to victims who cannot afford to pay for treatment, according to the centre's executive director, Grace Wangechi.
"Workers who attend to rape victims at the hospital also attend court cases to give expert evidence," Wangechi told Sabahi. "The medical reports have led to many convictions of rapists."
"Besides offering counselling services to victims of rape and child rape, family members also undergo the same services because they are also affected," she said.
Similar centres are also available in Moi Referral Hospital in Eldoret and Nairobi's Kenyatta National Hospital.