Sexual violence widespread during Kenyan elections, report says
Posted December 14, 2017 12:49 a.m. EST
(CNN) — Rape and sexual violence were widespread during this year's tumultuous elections in Kenya, a human rights organization says.
In a report published Thursday, Human Rights Watch documented dozens of cases of rape in the East African country after August's election between President Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition candidate Raila Odinga, and also following the subsequent rerun in October.
The Kenya Supreme Court ordered the second election after invalidating the results of the contentious August 8 vote -- which gave victory to incumbent Kenyatta -- following a challenge over irregularities. Odinga pulled out of the second race, saying that issues had not been resolved around the way the first election was run.
The report says the country's electoral process has been tainted by violence -- including rape and sexual assault -- for decades, and the 2017 cycle was no different.
During this year's two elections, an election official was killed, pockets of violence in opposition strongholds were reported and there were accusations of widespread voter irregularities.
"Since the 1990s, Kenyan elections have been marred by serious human rights violations, including killings, maiming and destruction of property," the report says. "Sexual violence against women and girls, though much less visible, has consistently been a part of these abuses."
Tribal bonds remain stronger than national identity in Kenya, where more than 40 different ethnic groups have been designated, and politics in the country are often driven along ethnic divides. The report says ethnicity is "easily associated with support for a certain political party or candidate."
As a result, political rivals are often easily identified, and physical intimidation of opponents is a well-worn tactic. "As in the 2007-2008 (political) violence, sexual violence during the 2017 political violence was directed at women and girls because of their gender but also their ethnicity," the report says.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 65 women, three girls and three men who say they experienced sexual violence in 2017, along with 12 witnesses to the post-election violence and civil society activists and community volunteers.
"Women and girls interviewed by Human Rights Watch described the perpetrators as mostly police officers or men in uniform who often carried guns, batons, tear gas canisters, whips, or wore helmets and other anti-riot gear," the report says. "Perpetrators also included militia groups and civilians, according to victims and witnesses."
The Kenyan government disputes the report's findings.
"HRW has a habit of coming up with very negative reports about Kenya's security agencies. HRW has never seen anything positive about the work carried out by Kenya police, and we are not surprised by the latest report," said Mwenda Njoka, spokesman for the Kenyan Interior Ministry.
"What I can tell you is that Kenya has a very robust independent police oversight body (IPOA) which investigates all claims against the police and takes the necessary action where police are found to have acted contrary to the law and the oath of office to protect life and property. The latest claims by HRW are not true and are simply a continuation of the human rights group's narrative against Kenya's Police Service."
A 'devastating' impact
Half the rapes documented around the 2017 elections were gang rapes, according to the report. A third were perpetrated in the presence of family members -- women's children and husbands were often also beaten during the attacks. Most of the interviewees also suffered some other form of violence, including beatings, torture and humiliation.
Survivors were also affected by a perceived stigma attached to being a rape victim as well as dealing with the trauma of family members who witnessed their attacks.
"The impact of sexual violence on survivors is devastating," said Agnes Odhiambo, senior women's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Almost all women and girls we spoke to suffered physical harm and profound mental trauma and feared that their attackers may never be held accountable."
Support services for rape victims is also severely lacking, according to Human Rights Watch.
Two years ago the government announced a fund for victims of past "injustices" -- including political violence -- but the money has not been allocated, the report says. Moreover, past funds of a similar nature do not include victims of sexual violence. The report also alleges that the government has not conducted credible investigations.
"For far too long, the Kenyan government has ignored election-related sexual crimes and victims' suffering," the report says.
'I don't know if it will ever end'
Survivors said they often didn't file a report because of disinterested or hostile authorities, and they cited fears of HIV infection and the perceived stigma of a diagnosis.
"They advised me to go test for HIV at another hospital," one interviewee said. "I did not go because I fear I will find I am positive."
Some reported getting pregnant or being pregnant when they were raped.
"One woman was almost five months' pregnant when she was raped, and miscarried. Another said she became pregnant after rape," according to the report.
Survivors recounted the long-lasting trauma.
"I don't know if it will ever end. I have no peace," one 16-year-old told Human Rights Watch. "At night I see as if they will come back. I recall what happened every day. I have nightmares. Every small noise at night scares me. I should just die."