News 2008


Can a Kenyan Peace Agreement Stem Rape?

By Muadi Mukenge

February 12, 2008

The international community must support Kenyan women, promote peace and send a message that sexual assault will not be tolerated.

While Kofi Annan gets closer to a peace agreement, the women of Kenya are still paying for the devastating rise in sexual violence in the post-electoral conflict.

Reported cases of rape and sexual attacks against women have doubled in areas hit by political strife -- and the gangs who are carrying them out are doing so with impunity. In a country with HIV prevalence of 7 percent, this potentially amounts to murder with no judicial redress.

Across the continent and beyond, women have, for years, disproportionately borne the burden of conflict -- inspiring groups like Unifem, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch to join local advocates around the world in an international campaign against sexual violence.

Kenya's post-electoral mayhem highlights a horrifying but less well-known aspect to this trend: an increase in sexual violence in the wake of flawed democratic processes that trigger uprisings. While not new, it has too often been ignored. Let us not repeat that mistake.

Shortly after the elections, the UN's Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery issued an urgent appeal to help Kenya's women; funders and aid groups have a duty to respond. The Global Fund for Women, the world's largest foundation committed solely to women's rights, has supported the work of local activists addressing gender violence for 20 years.

Following the outbreak of violence, we immediately joined an alliance of women's organizations to support the Nairobi-based Gender Violence Recovery Centre -- the only post-rape trauma initiative of its kind in East Africa.

The Centre offered the victims of post electoral rape free post- exposure HIV prophylaxis, comprehensive STI testing, pregnancy testing, counseling, and referral to legal services. It is critically needed work, yet it is only one initiative. We urge the international aid community to do more.

Meanwhile, the courageous women of Kenya actively organized to offer Kenya's most hopeful long-term avenue to peace. As Annan inched closer to an agreement at the top, GROOTS Kenya, which mobilizes women in poor slum areas, has been holding a series of grassroots peace dialogues to bring divided communities together.

It is a powerful initiative. In Liberia, a similar movement effectively forced rebel groups to reach an agreement to end that country's civil war -- culminating in the election of Africa's first woman president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.

Traditional security experts too often dismiss such efforts as well-meaning but ineffective. They are wrong. Time and time again women are proving the single most effective catalyst for conflict resolution, and Kenya will be no different. We need to do far more to empower such initiatives.

Finally, the international aid community -- including the U.S. government -- must send a much clearer message that rape and sexual assault will no longer be tolerated. While the global campaign against sexual violence has helped move the agenda forward, our leaders are not translating this into action. Women all over the world are horrified by their failure.

We want to hear our foreign ministers and secretaries of state explicitly condemn sexual violence. We want governments in conflict zones to sign punitive sexual violence legislation. And when they have signed it, we want them to advertise it and aggressively enforce its provisions.

This is not the latest politically correct fad. This is a proven way of addressing the wellbeing of 51 percent of the human race, the economic livelihood of our children, and ultimately the best chance for ensuring conflict ends and peace prevails.

We owe it to the world's women to take them seriously.