/ 26 December 2021

The Continent’s Africans of the Year: Agnes Tirop

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Kenyan runner Agnes Tirop poses after winning the women’s 1 500m race during a Diamond League meeting at the Olympic Stadium in Stockholm, Sweden. (Photograph by Marco Mantovani/ Getty Images)

It will not be for her prowess on the track that she will be remembered, but for being one of the many women who succumbed to the actions of a man during the pandemic within the pandemic. 

Agnes Jebet Tirop was undoubtedly one to watch on the athletics scene. The Kenyan long-distance runner and Olympian competed in the 1 500m, 5 000m, 10 000m and cross-country events and was headed for stardom. 

She had a meteoric rise to the top of road running, and in September she set a new world record in a women-only 10km race in Germany. An immense talent, Tirop enjoyed success as both a junior and senior athlete. She bagged a bronze medal in the 5 000m at the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) World Junior Championships in Athletics in 2012 and again in 2014. 

A year later, at the age of 19, she became the second-youngest gold medallist in the history of the women’s race at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships, after South Africa’s Zola Budd. But hers was a promising career that will forever remain in the realm of potential: Tirop met a violent and all too common end on October 13, allegedly at the hands of her husband Ibrahim Rotich. 

A day after her body was discovered, Rotich was arrested in the coastal town of Mombasa as he allegedly tried to flee the country. His family told the police he had telephoned them in tears, begging God’s forgiveness for something he had done. Her funeral was held on the day she would have turned 26. 

Stay-at-home orders, intended to protect the public by slowing the spread of the coronavirus, left many people who bear the brunt of intimate partner violence trapped with their abusers. Tirop was allegedly planning to leave Rotich, whom neighbours described as violent. 

The abusive nature of her marriage was hardly a secret and those close to the pair say she was desperate to get out of the union. According to UN Women, even before the pandemic, one in three women worldwide experience physical or sexual violence, mostly by an intimate partner. 

Before the pandemic, 243-million women and girls aged between 15 and 49 experienced sexual and/or physical violence by an intimate partner in 2019. Since the pandemic hit, violence against women – especially domestic violence – has intensified. Pandemics tend to be dangerous for women. 

Recent outbreaks of Ebola, Cholera, Zika, and Nipah have also led to an increase in the cases of domestic violence. During the Ebola virus outbreak, women and girls were especially vulnerable to violence because of the inability to escape their abuser. To compound the issue, some were also at the mercy of healthcare workers deployed to treat them. 

Since the outbreak of Covid-19, data has shown that all types of violence, exacerbated in part by health and job insecurity, has intensified against women and girls. As cases continue to strain health and other essential social services, domestic violence shelters and helplines have reached capacity, leaving many locked in with their abusers. 

And it’s not just an African issue. In Australia, Hannah Clarke and her three children were ambushed by her estranged partner during a morning school run, when he doused her car and its helpless occupants with fuel and set them alight. 

Covid-19 has also created opportunities for violence against women from those traditionally perceived to be trustworthy. In the UK, Wayne Couzens, a police officer, was sentenced to a whole life tariff for the kidnap, rape and murder of Sarah Everard. Couzens had abused his position of authority to snatch Everard from a London street in March under the premise of detaining her for breaking lockdown rules. 

We acknowledge and stand in solidarity with every person who has found that home can be a prison without bars. There is no shortage of causes for concern when looking at the conditions under which our continent is dealing with the pandemic. 

With so many harrowing stories it is easy to forget the many passionate survivors, advocates and campaigners working to ensure the health and safety of those denied the freedom to live in peace. After Tirop’s killing, Mary Ngugi – a fellow Kenyan long-distance road runner and the founder of the Women’s Athletic Alliance – began #NotYourProperty, a social-media based campaign to highlight intimate partner violence in Kenya. 

Sadly, like the unwrapped athletics trophy found at the scene of the crime, Tirop’s promise remains unfulfilled.

This article first appeared on The Continent, the African newspaper designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy.