Somewhere to Run: How COVID-19 Strengthened Fight against GBV in Western Kenya Counties

By Treezer Michelle Atieno

Milka Owino, a resident of Otonglo village in Kisumu recounts with tears as she narrates the brutality meted on her 3-year-old son Victor* on 17th November 2022. Milka had left her husband and son in the house as she left for her groceries business in the nearby Otonglo market.

“When I came back at 8 pm, the door was wide open with no lights inside. My son was lying on the bed, unmoving. His body bore marks and bruises as a result of my husband’s heinous acts. He had gruesomely sodomized him and left,” says Owino.

With the help of the village head and police officers, the boy was rushed to the Western Gender Based Violence Rescue Centre at Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Teaching and Referral Hospital (JOOTRH) for emergency medical care and the collection of evidence.

Physical, sexual and emotional violence are the most common forms of violence experienced by women in Kenya. Other forms include economic abuse. Nairobi, Western and Nyanza regions report the highest levels of physical and sexual abuse committed by spouses, according to the Kenya Gender-Based Violence Service Gap Analysis at the County Level.

Common types of gender-based violence in Kenya. Source: Kenya Gender-Based Violence Service Gap Analysis at the County Level.pdf

Dr. Monica Ogutu says that justice for GBV victims often fails because of the legal procedures that must be followed. “If a survivor goes to a health center he or she will be examined by a clinical officer who, legally, cannot give evidence in court. The P3 and the Post Rape Care (PRC) forms, in which evidence is generated, can only be signed by a medical health officer, who must be a doctor,” she says.

This is despite the fact that many rural health facilities and those in poor neighborhoods are run by clinical officers, not doctors.

“Where a clinician is the first point of contact for the survivor, the P3 and PRC Forms become a challenge, and this hinders justice because a perpetrator who is knowledgeable on legal requirements will question who saw the victim first, and if this was a clinical officer, he or she cannot come to court to give evidence,” explains Dr. Ogutu.

Records indicate that in both Bungoma and Kisumu Counties, prosecution of SGBV cases remains relatively low. One of the key obstacles to the successful prosecution of these cases is the failure to present sufficient substantiating evidence in court. Improving the collection and preservation of forensic evidence is key to increasing access to justice for survivors.

According to Kenya GBV Service Gap Analysis at the County Level, referrals within different structures like health to legal or police services also pose a challenge. Once fees are involved, clients often drop out of the system due to a lack of funds. There also seems to be a lack of clarity and information about which services are supposed to be provided for free.

Challenges in acquiring justice for gender-based violence victims in Kenya. Source: Kenya Gender-Based Violence Service Gap Analysis at the County Level.pdf

For Owino, the evidence collected through a doctor from the GBV centre at JOOTRH was sufficient to put the perpetrator behind bars. “I have been attending court hearings since January 2023. My son is also regaining confidence as a result of the counseling sessions at the GBV center in JOOTRH,” she concludes.

Roselyn Nanjala*, an attempted rape victim from Namwela village in Bungoma County says that it is at the GBV Rescue centre in Ndengelwa that she saw hope for justice.

Nanjala, 14, had been sent to a neighbor on 3rd April 2023 to collect a debt when the man suddenly locked the door from inside. He tried to defile her.  “A villager who knew me saw him close the door and alerted other villagers who came to my rescue,” says Nanjala.

“When I received a call concerning the incident at Namwela village, I immediately left with the rescue vehicle together with two police officers to the scene. On my way I contacted the area assistant chief to ensure that the victim stayed away from any contact and that the perpetrator did not flee from the scene,” says Mary Nasimiyu, the coordinator of the GBV rescue centre in Ndengelwa, Bungoma County.

Mary Nasimiyu , the coordinator of the Gender-Based Violence Rescue Centre in Bungoma County.

After a medical examination, the victim was given appropriate treatment including emergency contraceptives and Post- Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP). According to Nasimiyu, the doctor recommended the above treatment since it was a case of near penetration. The evidence collected was also sufficient to start the prosecution process. The first hearing of the case happened on 8th May 2023.

The GBV center has been operational for more than five years. Officers at the centre are in charge of responding to GBV emergencies by rushing the victims to the hospital using the rescue vehicle, forwarding the P3 and the Post Rape Care (PRC) Forms to the police after completing the medical examination and following up on cases to ensure that the victims get justice.

“Most of the cases we receive and handle here are gender-based family conflicts, matters of rape, female genital mutilation and teenage pregnancy issues. We receive and handle cases from all the 9 sub-counties in Bungoma County. We handle about 35 to 112 cases every year with Mount Elgon region recording the highest number of cases,” said Nasimiyu.

The completion of the safe house at the GBV centre in October 2021 was a move by the National Government to enhance the safety and protection of the victims. “The safe house was put up through funds from the National Government Affirmative Action Funds (NGAAF). Equipping it with beds, mattresses and other necessities is still ongoing. We are hoping to even have counselors available for victims at the center, ” said Nasimiyu.

The complete lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 heightened GBV cases in the country. Bungoma and Kisumu counties were among the counties that recorded a high increase in GBV cases during the Covid-19 pandemic period.

According to the National Crime and Research Centre (NCRC), gender-based violence cases increased to 2,032 between January and June 2021 from 1,057 cases reported in the entire year of 2019. Bungoma County recorded a 6% increase in GBV cases.

NCRC recorded that in about 80% of the cases reported, women and girls were the victims. This means that 10 females experienced GBV daily in Bungoma County.

Kisumu County recorded 2136 cases of sexual and gender violence between July 2020 to June 2021 according to the Ministry of Health with many more going unreported due to the COVID-19 curfews and limited awareness of channels of reporting. This means that about six cases of GBV were reported daily.

Through a report published on 21st September 2021, Human Rights Watch accused the government of failing to prevent gender-based violence or ensuring access to services for survivors during the COVID-19 pandemic. This included sexual abuse, child marriage, abandonment without support, female genital mutilation and physical abuse.

The key areas of failures of the government according to the report included not providing timely access to quality health care including emergency sexual, reproductive and psychosocial care, as well as protection services and financial assistance. Crimes were also not properly investigated or prosecuted.

In response to this report, the government through the Ministry of Public Service, Gender and Affirmative Action indicated efforts to mitigate and de-escalate the vice by deploying a multi-agency approach bringing together county governments, gender sector working groups, development partners and other non-state actors.

Kisumu County is one of the counties where this approach has been implemented.

“Kisumu County has been making progress in addressing GBV thanks to the adoption of the multi-sectoral approach involving all stakeholders in the development and implementation of programs to protect and promote women’s and girls’ rights,” says Dr. Ogutu who is also a board member at  JOOTRH.

The county government of Kisumu in partnership with Kisumu Medical and Education Trust (KMET) and Equality Now formed an alliance to try to handle the issue of rising cases of GBV in the region and strengthen future response to GBV issues.

In one of the new strategies meant to tame the perpetrators and ensure justice for victims, the county, national government and non-state actors launched a joint initiative to train law enforcers on how to fight the vice.

The training targeted the police, chiefs and their assistants who come face to face with the suspects both in urban and rural areas. “The sensitization training conducted between August to October 2020 was to emphasize the role of law enforcers in ensuring access to justice for victims and survivors. It was also meant to equip the officers to effectively and efficiently deal with SGBV issues through a survivor-centered approach,” explains Dr. Ogutu.

A training session for chiefs and assistant chiefs from Kisumu Central, Kisumu West and Kisumu East Sub counties on their role in ending GBV held in August 2020.

She adds that other interventions in the fight against GBV in Kisumu include training community health volunteers CHVs as points of contact with the community for an easy referral system and sensitization of community members on how to prevent and respond to GBV.

“On 2nd June 2022, KMET opened a safe house in Kisumu which has been named the Freedom House to host women and children fleeing violence. Opening of the Freedom House is based on the lessons learnt during the COVID-19 pandemic where the majority of women endured abuse with nowhere to go. The limited shelters were full and some of us had to host survivors in our houses,” says Dr. Ogutu.

Nasimiyu on the other hand states that the GBV Centre in Bungoma currently has three field officers whose work is to notify and accompany the police to crime sites whenever they receive alerts about GBV crimes.

“Chikwi Khaoya, Joseph Ochuma and I are always alert and ready to attend to any cases reported. We also do follow-ups on all the cases that are reported through us to ensure that justice is delivered and that the victims are able to move on,” she adds.

* not the real names of victims

This publication was produced with the financial support of the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of (Treezer Michelle Atieno) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.

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