OPINION: Building back better for survivors of Gender Based Violence

OPINION: Building back better for survivors of Gender Based Violence

  • In Kenya, women and girls have been living in an emergency with almost half of them reporting to have experienced violence in their lifetime, with two-fifths of them reporting to have incurred injuries from the violence meted on them by their intimate partners.

By Christine Ogutu

Globally one in three women have experienced either physical or sexual violence perpetrated by an intimate partner (IPV).

In Kenya, women and girls have been living in an emergency with almost half of them reporting to have experienced violence in their lifetime, with two-fifths of them reporting to have incurred injuries from the violence meted on them by their intimate partners.

The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic has not made it better for women and girls, if anything, it has aggravated their vulnerabilities to violence. In the first year of the pandemic, violence against women and girls (VAWG) increased by 92 percent with physical assault, rape, murder, sexual offenses, defilement, grievous harm, physical abuse, child marriages, psychological torture and child neglect being the most common forms. In a similar trend, the National Helpline, 1195 also reported more than 5000 VAWG cases between the periods of January and December 2020.

The foregoing statistics paints a picture of a country that has a long history with incidences of VAWG, yet many survivors affected by the vice do not report or seek any help for fear of retribution from their abusers and being victim shamed for the harm done to them.

Harmful cultural norms and practices, failure of government to properly investigate acts of violence against women and girls and hold perpetrators accountable, normalization of gender inequalities stemming from age-old patriarchal systems and inadequate or non-existent support for survivors, have all created a culture of impunity that continues to stiffle the voices and endanger the lives of women and girls.

The tribulations of women and girls facing violence are also aggravated by the failure of the government to ensure that they have access to survivors-centred support services like shelters, timely medical treatment and financial assistance to rebuild their lives.

 What is being done?

In June this year, during the Generation Equality Forum (GEF) in Paris, Kenya renewed its commitment to accelerate investment and efforts towards ending VAWG by 2026. In it’s 12 action points, Kenya announced a national roadmap and an investment of 2.3 billion by 2022 and an additional 5 billion by 2026  for VAWG prevention and response.

Additionally, Kenya committed to fully implementing VAWG related laws and policies as well as integrating medical, legal and psychosocial support services for survivors into the universal health coverage.

The idea of a one-stop-shop for survivors has also been long overdue and thus it is also commendable that the government recently launched a policy to spearhead the operationalization of the national police service integrated response to SGBV dubbed ‘Policare’. This initiative is currently being piloted in Nairobi and is expected to be cascaded to all the 47 counties alongside the establishment of safe shelters for survivors seeking safety away from violence-marred homes.

Women’s rights organizations like the Center for Rights Education and Awareness (CREAW Kenya) have also been on the frontline from the onset of the pandemic, working closely with a network of non-governmental organizations, grassroots women-led groups and other VAWG service providers to streamline the referral pathway and enable survivors seek services including psycho-social support, free legal aid, shelter, police and health facilities without any difficulty.

Alongside this, CREAW Kenya has also been resourcing shelters across the counties and providing cash relief to survivors to meet their most immediate needs and establish livelihood activities to sustain their families.

How then must we build back better for survivors?

But even with the foregoing interventions, VAWG remains widespread. To forge a better future for women and girls beyond the pandemic, we must relook at the institutional and structural ways that are key to safeguarding the rights of women and girls and achieving equality for all.

With the GEF long gone, it is only prudent that the government institutionalized its commitments into action plans to accelerate actions and investments both at the national and county levels.

We must not also forget the accountability aspect that comes with such, thus the national VAWG data collection and monitoring system comes in handy. As a country, we must also inculcate an open culture where the citizenry are able to participate and exercise their constitutional rights to hold the government and other duty bearers accountable for the utilization of resources to prevent, respond and support survivors of VAWG.

Taking cognisance of the SGBV response mechanisms available to survivors, we must be alive to the fact that we need to do more when it comes to prevention and support mechanisms. One of the critical ways to ensure this is for government to invest in violence prevention models that have worked to reduce incidences of violence against women and girls. Government must critically look into existing regional prevention models and adapt one that fits into the Kenyan context for piloting and subsequent scale-up. Prevention models like the Indashyikirwa model that has been tested in Rwanda can be adapted in Kenya to aid in IPV reduction among couples.

The issue of safe shelters and halfways homes has also gathered momentum with the surge in VAWG cases amidst the pandemic. To date, only Makueni County has a fully resourced, state run shelter for survivors, the rest are privately owned and lack capacity or sustainable resources to support survivors.

The deficit in state-run shelters, is a double violation to survivors who are seeking safety away from violence-marred homes. It is possible to establish safe shelters in all 47 counties to offer a basket of care to VAWG survivors.

Just recently, the government launched a national police integrated response to SGBV Policare a great stepping stone to ensuring that survivors get access to holistic services, including, medical, psycho-social, police, legal and health services, under one roof. If cascaded to all the 47 counties, it will go a long way towards improving survivors’ safety and perpetrators' accountability.

It would effectively create and coordinate linkages to support services for survivors, including,access to age-appropriate psychosocial support services,  and other support services required by survivors, to heal and access justice.

The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic has also presented a dire humanitarian situation with a shift in the referral systems for survivors. Training of duty bearers, including judicial officers, police, prosecutors and many more is crucial to ensure they keep abreast of the changing trends, and are well versed with gender-responsive mechanisms to handle survivors taking into account their lived realities to avoid retraumatization as they navigate the justice system amidst and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.

While they are at it, the government should also set-up police gender desks that are more humanizing, to restore dignity for survivors who are reporting violations.

It is also critical that Kenya fully implement the existing national laws and policies as well as the regional instruments such as the Maputo Protocol, and use them as a tool to advance social change across communities, especially when it comes to the promotion of the rights of women and girls.

Government must ensure direct support to vulnerable populations, particularly women and girls in their diversities, to enable them to address their most immediate needs. This may include the provision of menstrual and hygiene supplies and also cash reliefs and resilient grants to protect vulnerable groups from the risks of violence and further exploitation.

In regards to community structures, we must appreciate the existing grassroot structures that help prevent and respond to VAWG. With a lot of focus shifting to the digital world, the role citizen journalism plays in amplifying the voices of survivors can never be undervalued.

Communities, VAWG actors and duty bearers must make it their priority to engage with the work that citizen journalists do and jointly work with them to advance community social accountability endeavours, especially in areas where survivors lack support.

Christine Ogutu works with the Center for Rights Education and Awareness (CREAW)