My right, my responsibility

Nairobi Women's Hospital treated more than 300 women who had been gang raped in the aftermath of the contested Presidential election. Speaking from personal experience, Wangu Kanja reports on the challenges these women now face

In 2002, I lived through an experience that will be forever etched in my memory. While working for a transport company in Nairobi, I was car jacked and raped at gun point. After the attack I was left confused for a number of reasons: the police did not seem to care at all, my family members and friends were not supportive, and the rest of the society stigmatised me by labelling me 'a person who was raped'. The first three years after the assault was the most difficult time for me, going through challenges that I did not have a clue how to handle. I thought that psychotherapy was not an important part of the recovery process; little did I know that you need to address the void within you after such a traumatic experience.

After three years I made a decision to use my personal experience to support survivors, their families and create awareness of the effects of such a heinous crime on an individual and on society, and last but not least, what an individual should do when they experience such a traumatic event. When I was growing up I was lucky to have a friend of the family organise for tutorials for teenagers on sexual transmitted infections and what to do when you are raped in church. That information kept me away from harm i.e. contacting the HIV virus, sexually transmitted infections, medical complications and unwanted pregnancy after my rape ordeal.

After a lot of soul searching I set up the Wangu Kanja Foundation which runs a 24 hour crisis line to support survivors of sexual violence to access medical, psychological, legal redress as well as creating awareness.  I had blamed myself for the ordeal, abused alcohol to suppress my frustrations, had sex that was purely physical to affirm to self that I was still desirable to my male counter parts and to date I am still discovering who I am after the incident. I have learnt that it is important to have family and friends support in your healing process. Each sexual violence case is unique in its own way, stigma and discrimination is a great hindrance for survivors seeking comprehensive medical, psychological and legal support.  Borrowing best practices from developed countries in addressing sexual is the way forward. Every country has its unique challenges in addressing sexual violence, for example in Kenya we do not have a specific unit to investigate such crimes, lack of evidence preservation in storage facilities, ICT automated systems in police stations for background checks on perpetrators DNA or figure prints. The list is endless.  

Kenya is in a period of transition with a coalition government formed in response to widespread political and ethnic violence following the disputed 2007 presidential elections. In August 2010, Kenyans voted overwhelmingly for a new constitution which better recognizes and protects human rights, including -- for the first time -- economic, cultural and social rights. The new constitution provides an opportunity for much-needed legal and institutional reforms, especially of the police and judiciary, that enhance human rights, but implementation has been slow. Exposure of serious police human rights abuses, including extrajudicial executions of criminal suspects, led to police reforms and the removal from office of the police commissioner. Yet impunity remains a serious problem. No perpetrators of the post-election violence have been brought to justice, and the national tribunal agreed to as a condition of the post-election political settlement has yet to be established. As a result, in March 2011 the International Criminal Court summoned six prominent Kenyans to the Hague to answer charges of organizing the post-election violence.

In the post-election conflict the Nairobi Women's Hospital Gender Violence Recovery Centre, Kenya’s pioneer health institution specializing in women’s health issues, reported that between late December 2007 and end of February 2008, they alone treated a total of 443 women of whom 80% were rape/ defilement cases. Almost 90% of the rape cases the hospital faced during the political crisis were gang rapes - now believed to be the most common type of sexual and gender based violence during conflicts and war-time.

At our organisation we are supporting women who have become HIV positive after their ordeals and others who conceived and have no clue how to go about bring up a child out of a rape ordeal, others are now perpetrators of the same heinous crime (this is not documented but we have been able to talk to young men who are perpetrators) and the rest don’t know how to deal with the issue they live a day at a time.  We managed to gather evidence for presentation before the Waki Commission  in 2008,preparing witnesses to give information at the inquiry, and we fundraised to make sure that the women had hygiene kits - a pair of slippers, a towel, a khang, a tooth brush, tooth paste, sanitary towels and some underwear. 

Women are still coming in to share their experiences after their ordeals. It is too late to change some of the situations of the women - those with  children born out of their rape ordeals and those whose HIV status is now positive need a  comprehensive package to improve their lives.

Sexual violence should be allocated resources as was done with  HIV/Aids, health, security and environmental issues.  This will enable us to carry out a vast project aiming at ending impunity on sexual and gender based violence in the conflict areas i.e. Uganda, Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Rwanda, DRC, Burundi, Liberia and Guinea. The message that I shall take to the Nobel Women's Initiative conference is that we need to empower countries in the conflict areas with mechanisms that will assist the survivors and their families to heal, have major awareness campaigns on peace building and conflict resolutions, set up disaster management mechanisms. 

If we empower the countries in conflict areas with the necessary mechanisms and knowledge, people will fight for their rights and they will take up their responsibility to hold their leaders accountable, uphold integrity, quality and transparency. My right, My responsibility.

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