In the East African nation of Kenya this June, 16-year-old Liz (pseudonym) was brutally raped by at least three men on the way home from her grandfather’s funeral before being thrown into a latrine and breaking her back. In response, the local police authorities sentenced three men she identified as her rapists to cutting grass.
The case caught public attention this past week as a rally in Nairobi was attended to by outraged Kenyans and an online petition has garnered 1.3 million signatures. This protest also included the Coalition on Violence Against Women, led by local activist Saidi Ali, who expressed serious concern for the government’s willpower. “We are concerned that sexual and gender violence are not treated as serious crimes. We want an assurance that they will be treated as serious crimes and that our demands will be met.”
Kenya’s The Daily Nation first brought the details surrounding the punishment of Liz’s rapists to light, and the Nation Media Group has continued to follow her case closely, promoting donations to go toward Liz’s medical bills and legal fees.
It was coordinated through a campaign titled “Stand up for Liz. Help her walk again.” that used mobile donations to raise over600,000 Kenyan shillings ($7,000) for her first of two spinal operations. As a result of the attack, Liz has also developed obstetric fistula, leaving her with a leaky bladder.
A number of Kenyan politicians have been quick to promise new legislation, and the Chief Justice has passed the case on to the Attorney General, who has submitted a bill to the National Assembly. This bill would “seek to recognize that domestic violence in all forms is unacceptable behavior” and would clamp down on “21 forms of violence,” — however, it does not assign punishments per se but instead has them meted out by local courts under preexisting assault and rape statutes.
The bill would extend protections to a wide variety of sexual violence offenses including stalking, in-law interference and marital assault. It would also fight a number of ‘traditional’ issues, such as child marriage, forceful inheritance of a wife and testing for virginity.
Rape statistics are notoriously difficult to compare internationally due to varying definitions, rates of reporting and convictions, and thus it is often headline-catching stories and an exasperated public that bring unpredictable political action in less-developed nations.
This was perhaps clearest last year in India when the brutal gang rape of a university student — who died from her wounds 13 days later — brought widespread protests and a new law, yet failed to criminalize marital rape.
Kenya’s new bill would do far, far better, but it still requires the willingness of the local policemen, the same officials who had their station’s lawn cut by machete-wielding rapists.
The foot soldiers in poor, yet democratic nations like Kenya largely remain petit dictators, beholden to weak laws, limp pay, the needs of a large or extended family and a system that sorts itself by personal connections and favors rather than merit.
The words of the Chief Justice and speed of the Attorney General in introducing new legislation are hopeful signs in an increasingly connected and middle-class Kenya, and this author looks forward to swift passage of the bill and increased local responsibility.