Sexual and other forms of violence during the COVID-19 pandemic in Kenya

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By Sarah Rockowitz (MSc Health Policy, MSc Public Health)
Global Challenges PhD Scholar in School of Psychology and School of Nursing, University of Birmingham.

“The research found that children, particularly girls, have heightened vulnerability to sexual violence committed by non-stranger perpetrators (e.g. neighbours) at private residences during the daytime, owing to school closures and a lack of alternative safe venues.”

Organisations from around the world have reported that COVID-19 is exacerbating vulnerability to sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). Our team documented shifting patterns of violence during the pandemic in Kenya. The research was survivor-led, with multiple survivors’ groups and human rights defenders collecting data in and around their communities for the project. The research findings are being shared with policymakers and other stakeholders, including Kenya’s GBV Gender Sector Working Group, which is convened by the State Department of Gender under the Ministry of Public Service, Youth and Gender.

Sexual and gender-based violence is a problem worldwide

UNOCHA has found that SGBV is a problem that affects 1 in 3 women around the world at least once in their lifetime. While women everywhere are affected, prevalence varies significantly between regions. For example, the WHO’s 2013 report on global and regional estimates of violence against women found that low-and-middle income regions have a prevalence of 45.6% (Africa), 40.2% (South-East Asia), and 36.4% (Eastern Mediterranean). The high-income region’s prevalence is 32.7%.

State of violence during pandemic in Kenya

With this knowledge in mind, a team of worldwide collaborators came together to produce this report on sexual and other forms of violence during the pandemic in Kenya. Over 80 survivors of sexual and other forms of violence were interviewed across the country by human rights defenders, volunteers from the Survivors of Sexual Violence in Kenya Network, and the Social Justice Centre working group.

The research found that children, particularly girls, have heightened vulnerability to sexual violence committed by non-stranger perpetrators (e.g. neighbours) at private residences during the daytime, owing to school closures and a lack of alternative safe venues. Women have also seen an increase in sexual and physical violence by both stranger and non-stranger perpetrators (such as intimate partners), partially due to being forced to remain in lockdown with abusers. Additionally, the social isolation and forced lockdown has meant that there are fewer bystanders around and limited access to outside resources.

This situation has been made worse by the socio-economic impact of the crisis, which has left countless people unemployed and has led to increased tensions in the home and therefore increased rates of violence and homelessness for women.

As with previous crises in Kenya, the police have been perpetrators of violence themselves. Reports by human rights actors and news stories have shown that the police have killed and injured people while enforcing the emergency measures put in place by the Kenyan government.

The present system used in Kenya to gather testimonies and evidence from survivors about SGBV cases is poor, and as a result Kenya has an extremely low case prosecution rate, with one study showing less than 4% of cases reported to a sexual violence foundation proceeding to court and less than 1.5% being concluded (Rockowitz, Kanja, and Flowe, forthcoming). Key problems in documenting and investigating sexual violence are summarized here.

Kenya has a history of violence during crises (see post-election violence in 2007/2008), and this pandemic is no exception. This violence can be linked to gendered identities and unequal power dynamics that stem from years of colonial oppression (Rockowitz, Kanja, and Flowe, forthcoming). The emergency measures taken by the government have markedly increased the vulnerability of women and children. Children, especially girls, who no longer have access to school as a safe haven, have been targeted during the pandemic by mostly non-stranger perpetrators  who are inviting them into their homes under the ruse of using their computer or phone for internet access.

Addressing issues 

The report offers policy recommendations to better address the aforementioned issues. Firstly, SGBV prevention and protection must be integrated into the Kenyan government’s emergency and recovery plans. Next, children must be considered in policy and preparedness planning, including safe venues being prioritized when schools are shut down. Finally, real-time data collection must be implemented as it is the best way to identify geographic clusters, serial offenders, and service accessibility. If the government had an incident tracking system, crime hotspots could be identified early on and action could be taken to prevent future crimes from occurring.

The research is ongoing, with many further cases documented. The research is guided by the belief that survivor‐led research and advocacy will lead to changed attitudes and behaviour for the survivor and society. For the survivor, survivor‐led research and advocacy may increase psychological well‐being, reduce the negative health consequences of SGBV, and have economic benefits. On a societal level, Smith, Flowe, and Kanja have found that survivor‐led research and advocacy may alter community, family and policy maker attitudes and behaviours towards survivors, who are often stigmatised by others.

Sarah Rockowitz is investigating barriers to post-rape care service provision in Kenya and India. Her research is also funded by U21. The report was funded by UKRI, and the Institute for Global Innovation at the University of Birmingham.

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