Silence, shame, victim-blaming: Kenya’s femicide epidemicThu, 01 Feb 2024 06:15:45 GMT

Her head severed, her body parts chopped off: Kenyan student Rita Waeni’s gruesome murder last month unfolded like a horror movie. But it felt all too real to the thousands of women who took to the streets on Saturday to protest a national femicide epidemic.At one of the marches in Nairobi’s central business district, protesters brandished placards and chanted “Stop killing us”.”I have not been to a rally before but I felt very compelled to fight for this,” engineering student Beatrice Obiero told AFP. “There is absolutely nothing that can justify the killing of a woman,” the 34-year-old said.In 2022 alone, Kenya recorded 725 femicide cases according to a report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, the highest number since data collection began in 2015.Rights groups have been alarmed by the phenomenon, calling it a “pandemic” and urging the government to treat it as a “national disaster”.Waeni’s murder was one of at least 16 femicide incidents recorded in the East African nation in the first month of 2024.Her body parts were dumped in a dustbin and eight days later her head was found inside a dam on Nairobi’s outskirts. The particularly grisly nature of the crime shocked Kenya.”This is the first time I have come across such an incident in my forensic life,” Kenya’s top government pathologist, Johansen Oduor, told reporters.Yet for many Kenyan women, sexual and gender-based violence is a frighteningly familiar reality.- Shame and silence -Njeri Migwi founded Usikimye, a safe house for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, in 2019 after fleeing a harrowing 15-year marriage to a violent man that left her partially deaf.”I narrowly escaped with my own life,” Migwi told AFP.”I ran away because I was like… sitting here means I will die.”Seventy-five percent of femicide cases in Kenya are perpetrated by intimate partners and family members with only 15 percent committed by complete strangers, according to a report released in January by OdipoDev, a data science company in Nairobi.Last year, one of the women who had sought refuge at Usikimye was “stabbed to death” by her former partner when she briefly returned home to retrieve her personal documents, Migwi said.But the true magnitude of the crisis remains unknown because many cases go undocumented, she added.The silence by religious and political leaders on the issue has not helped, she said, referring to her own Kikuyu community which refers to wives as “mutumia” (“the quiet one”)”We are not supposed to speak because it brings shame to the community,” she said.Usikimye means “don’t be silent” in Swahili.- ‘End the menace’ -Activists also bemoan the tendency to blame victims, saying it distracts from the issue at hand.In the days and weeks following Waeni’s death, social media accounts, purportedly from men, cast aspersions on the murdered student, accusing her of “hooking up for money” and raising questions about her clothing choices and lifestyle.In 2022, Kenya launched a special court to handle cases of sexual and gender-based violence, a year after the National Police Service opened PoliCare centres to make it easier for victims to report such crimes.But activists say Kenya’s legal system still fails women.Research by OdipoDev reveals that it takes an average of 1,900 days before a femicide suspect is sentenced.According to Eric Theuri, president of the Law Society of Kenya, the country doesn’t suffer from a lack of strong legislation but rather from poor “capacity in terms of resources”.Victims say attitudes also need to change.When Obiero reported an incident involving a violent ex-boyfriend two years ago, police told her to “figure a way out” herself, she said.Her complaint was officially lodged, “but nothing came out of it,” the mother-of-one said.The uproar surrounding Waeni’s brutal killing prompted Kenya’s Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) to make a public statement on Tuesday.The DCI vowed to “diligently expedite investigations on serious sexual offences and murder incidents involving women… (and) end the worrying trend of femicide in the country.””These killings have cast a dark shadow over our safety and security endeavours; we must put an end to this menace,” said Mohamed Amin, the director of criminal investigations.Obiero told AFP she welcomed the pledge by one of Kenya’s highest-ranking police officials, but added: “It would be great to see them back it up by actions.”