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Kenya’s courts not yet safe haven for women

As the world marks International Women’s Day on Thursday, under the theme of Ending Impunity for Violence against Women and Girls, activists in Kenya claim there is much to do in ensuring that abusers are punished.

”The low rate of convictions is very worrying … We continue to see violators of women’s rights being released and cases of violence against women being quashed,” says Ann Njogu, executive director of the Centre for Rights Education and Awareness. ”I do not think impunity will end if the justice system behaves how it is behaving.”

The centre is based in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, and champions women’s rights

A recent court case has thrown the concerns of activists into sharp relief. The accused in the proceedings was sentenced to four-and-a-half years in jail, three strokes of the cane and hard labour after being convicted of rape.

However, the verdict was overturned on appeal on grounds of insufficient evidence, with judges questioning why the accuser had not promptly informed her mother or church minister of the alleged crime. She reported the incident in April 1998, four months after the rape had supposedly taken place.

”Of course the sooner one reports the better, as evidence is much easier to collect then — as the matters are still fresh in one’s mind. However, to imagine that three months after the event is too long as stated by the judges in this matter is not only in bad taste, but also [enables] the miscarriage of justice,” says Njogu, who is challenging the appeal rulin.

Campaigners maintain that there is no time limit within which rape has to be reported.

There is also concern at reports that magistrates are continuing to give lenient sentences to rapists in contravention of the new sexual offences law.

The 2006 law stipulates a minimum sentence of 10 years and maximum punishment of life imprisonment for rape; previously, legislation only stipulated a maximum sentence, leaving the minimum sentence at the discretion of magistrates who were free to give an offender prison time of just days, or even community service.

”There is no awareness creation among judicial officers. As we speak, the law is not being fully utilised. Copies of the law are not even available in courts, particularly those in remote places,” says Jane Onyango, executive director of the Federation of Women Lawyers-Kenya (Fida-Kenya).

In the course of doing field work at Kericho, south-western Kenya, last year, Fida-Kenya discovered that copies of the legislation had not yet been distributed to courts and police stations in the area.

Activists argue that the bench’s failure to punish rape severely will simply allow the crime to become more widespread.

Reported cases of rape, attempted rape, defilement and incest, and assault against women rose by 1,4% from 11 867 in 2004 to 12 036 in 2005, according to the 2006 Kenya National Human Development Report. The document was released last week in Nairobi by the United Nations Development Programme.

Efforts to address domestic violence also leave something to be desired, say campaigners.

A Domestic Violence Bill was tabled in Parliament in 2000 to deal with mistreatment in the home, in part by compelling the court to protect women from abusive partners. However, debate on the Bill was never concluded, despite acknowledgement that eradicating domestic violence in the absence of such legislation would prove a nigh impossible task.

”Without such a law, we cannot win this war,” says Peterlis Nyatuga, of the government-appointed National Commission on Gender and Development.

The Bill now has to be republished and reintroduced in parliament.

A community study conducted by Fida-Kenya last year in Nairobi, the western and coastal regions indicates that husbands are the most frequent perpetrators of domestic violence. — IPS

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Joyce Mulama
Guest Author

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