Heather D. Flowe, PhD
Kenya's worrying trend of sexual violence during COVID-19 requires a swift, significant response
In times of humanitarian crisis, such as the COVID-19 pandemic that has dominated 2020, women and girls are especially vulnerable to further risks.
Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV) is a blight on every country, and it is far from being unique to Kenya. But, according to the National Monitoring and Evaluation Framework, over 11 million women in Kenya have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime. And over the course of the pandemic and the emergency measures that followed, matters have worsened.
The Kenyan government implemented emergency measures in the wake of COVID-19 that included a nightly dusk-to-dawn curfew, school closures, and restrictions to road, rail, and air movements.
These steps can be instrumental in controlling the spread of COVID-19, particularly in densely populated and urban areas. However, these measures have socioeconomic repercussions, and they appear to have increased incidences of SGBV.
Earlier this year the State Department of Gender Affairs reported a 42% increase in SGBV cases, while a survey of members of the public found that 62% of respondents believe that COVID-19 is worsening gender inequality in their communities, with 53% reporting that it is increasing SGBV.
Not only are cases on the rise, but the emergency measures, staff shortages, and economic shocks have eroded much of the support network available to SGBV survivors. Safe shelters, medical, police and legal services have been forced to scale down their operations in the face of COVID-19.
To that end, UN Women labelled SGBV during COVID-19 as a ‘shadow pandemic’ and has encouraged governments to earmark part of their economic support and stimulus packages to specifically address the needs of women during this time.
It is a stance echoed by President Kenyatta. On July 6th, he called for Kenya’s National Research Centre to investigate the rising numbers of sexual and gender-based violations, and for security agencies to take remedial action. He also called for the immediate prosecution of suspected perpetrators.
To have such commitment is promising. But to truly tackle the ill of SGBV we require action on a scale that Kenya has not seen before, and a deeper understanding of the emerging data from this pandemic.
Alongside colleagues, I have been working alongside the Wangu Kanja Foundation, Human Rights Defenders (HRD), volunteers from the Survivors of Sexual Violence in Kenya Network, and the Social Justice Centres working groups to get a clearer picture of SGBV trends throughout the year.
They are, in short, extremely concerning.
The emerging evidence reveals that children, in particular, are facing far greater risks of sexual violence during the COVID-19 pandemic than before. Data suggests that child victims are younger too. Before the pandemic the average age of a child victim was 16. Now, that number is 12.
These children are also more likely to be victimised during the daytime than before, and much more likely to be victimised by a neighbour in a private residence (42%, compared to 16% pre-pandemic.)
Traditionally we might have thought of a neighbour as a ‘safe space’ but data clearly suggests otherwise.
This speaks to our need for quality data to help us rethink how we prevent sexual offences. Well-intentioned preconceptions we may have, such as neighbours being a reliable, safe space for children, need to be challenged.
What we do know about sexual offenders is that they are versatile, they adjust their offending behaviours to correspond with opportunities. In light of schools being closed, and parents of children looking for safe spaces for them to spend their day, there are those that have abused this trust to continue offending.
These findings are consistent with other reports emerging from Kenya about the escalating impact of the COVID-19 emergency on women and girls.
Within the first three months of the pandemic, there were 51 reports of sexual violations perpetrated by the police.
We also know that the socio-economic impact of the crisis has increased tensions within households, with reports of physical violence and increased homelessness for women. Even with resources stretched, a national domestic violence help hotline in Kenya reported the number of calls received rose 1000%, from 86 calls in February to 1108 in June.
Though some other domestic violence organisations and safe shelters that have remained open have reported a similar surge in SGBV cases, others have seen the number of calls for help decline significantly because perpetrators are preventing victims from accessing protection and other essential services.
This speaks to a universal truth about SGBV – solutions are not simple. They require holistic interventions that use real-time data to prevent incidence where possible, support survivors comprehensively, and use informed policing to aid the justice system in prosecution. Calls being on the decline might not mean that cases are. The patterns of SGBV that we see during ‘normal’ times may not be the same in times of crisis, like now. Our collective response needs to be robust, but flexible.
There are immediate things that must be implemented to combat this shadow pandemic and improve our handling of SGBV for generations to come.
Firstly, we need a survivor-centred approach that empowers survivors and prioritises their rights to access quality health care, security, social support, and legal services. These services should be designed with the input of survivors, and be delivered in a manner that treats survivors with dignity and respect to promote their recovery, and enable them to make decisions.
Secondly, crime prevention strategies must include the provision of alternative safe environments for children during the day whilst schools are closed. Beyond the pandemic, these spaces should continue to be available during school holidays.
Next, we must help organisations who support survivors of SGBV who have lost funding due to the economic fallout of the pandemic and been forced to close facilities and crucial programmes.
Those organisations that remain open also need to be given greater scope to help survivors. Curfew restrictions and decreased government operations have made protecting and responding to the needs of survivors difficult, and at times impossible, to achieve. In conducting our own research, interviewers encountered numerous risks and obstacles, including police interference when assisting survivors.
We also must ensure government COVID-19 emergency management and recovery plans include alternative emergency routes, such as free Wi-Fi, and platforms for online and telephone reporting to help encourage reporting. These support pathways will then be in place to continue tackling SGBV once the pandemic is through.
And at the heart of this is a desperate need to invest in gathering high quality, real-time data. President Kenyatta’s call is a promising start. But not only do we need to gather this data, we need to interrogate it and use it to inform a more flexible policing of SGBV in Kenya, providing authorities with the information to clamp down on sexual violence and design interventions – whether that is safe spaces or additional resource or otherwise – that can help people where it is most needed.
Transforming our approach to SGBV may not be easy, particularly in the current climate. But it is absolutely necessary.
The research reference in this article was carried out by the Wangu Kanja Foundation (Kenya), the National Crime Research Centre (Kenya), and the CARE and Rights for Time projects at the University of Birmingham.