Fighting to get justice for rape victims in Kenya’s north

WAJIR, KENYA – Eight months ago, Fatuma Hussein Abdi started seeing changes in her  15-year-old daughter’s body and suspected that the girl could be pregnant. She asked about it, only to learn that her own brother-in-law had raped her daughter, Maryam, who was then eight months pregnant.

When Abdi prodded her further, her daughter revealed that it had happened when her uncle was nursing a fractured leg after a motorbike accident. The uncle had asked her to help him make his bed one afternoon when her mother was not around and the rest of the kids were in school. While she was making the bed, her uncle pounced on her, choked her and raped her.

Abdi informed her husband’s family about it; they denied it and even threatened her with divorce. She then decided to inform the elders in the hope that they would rule through the traditional Maslah system in the case.

“I first informed the elders and, after three days when they did nothing, I went to the police who came and arrested him,” said Abdi.

Maryam, left, with her baby on her lap, and her mother, Fatuma Hussein Abdi, in black veil, at their home in Wajir. Photo by Anthony Langat

After she reported to the police, the case was picked up and taken to court. Charges of rape were leveled against the young man. Because of the collective efforts of a technical working group formed by the police, non-governmental organizations and other government institutions, including the county ministry of health, Maryam’s case made some progress.

In recent times, Wajir has made it to the national headlines due to rampant cases of rape. Unlike in other parts of the country, rape cases in Wajir are rarely reported, with locals preferring to address it through Maslah.  The Maslah system, which is the Somali traditional way of solving disputes, gives priority to compensation of the victim’s clan as opposed to punishment of the perpetrator.

Although there are no recent statistics on rape and gender-based violence in Kenya as a whole, the Gender Violence Recovery Centre (GVRC), a charitable organization that caters for survivors of rape, has in the past conducted surveys on the same. In 2012, for instance, GVRC reported that between 2006 and 2012, a total of 12,682 cases of sexual violence were reported to them. GVRC is based in Nairobi with a few satellite offices across the country.

In Wajir, the technical working group includes Ubah Aden, the Wajir County Gender Director, who decried the lack of enough resources in her department to enable it to deal effectively with rape cases. “For instance, we do not have safe houses where we can take survivors to after we have rescued them,” she said. However, due to support from NGO’s including Mercy Corps under funding from BRACED, the delivery of information has improved. “We have a gender-based violence desk and a toll-free line. We also have coverage from the community radio and so information cascades down to the villages,” Aden said.

The working group meets regularly to deliberate on existing cases and on how to assist victims and bring perpetrators to book. “We have a WhatsApp forum and, if a case is reported, we come together to discuss how to support the victim,” said Suli Guhad, the gender advisor at Mercy Corps.

Ubah Aden, Suli Guhad and Rukia Abdullahi, front row, left to right, meet with other members of the technical working group. Photo by Anthony Langat

One main challenge for the group is the traditional arbitration by the Maslah.  It is dominated by male elders of the Somali community who make judgments affecting members of the community. In cases of rape, the Maslah decides on the number of livestock to be paid as a fine. In some instances, it rules that the girl should  marry the perpetrator.

Somali elders who belong to Maslah declined to comment for this article.

While the technical working group has done its best to ensure that many people hear of the toll-free line and are aware of the help they can get when someone they know is raped, there are others who still believe in the Maslah system.

This, according to Rukia Abdullahi, the chair of the local chapter of a women’s organization called Maendeleo ya Wanawake (Women in Development), is because of the patriarchal nature of the Somali community and the fact that the elders make most of the decisions in the community. “As the old men take time to deliberate on the issue, evidence is always destroyed and, by the time the police hear of it, there is usually not enough evidence to prosecute the suspect,” she said.

In other cases, however, DNA may be a solution, but the working group finds it difficult to get the samples to the government chemist in Nairobi as the group currently does not have a budget for this. It sometimes takes longer to get the samples to court as the group has to look for money to cover transport for one member to go to Nairobi and back. In Maryam’s case, for example, the court requested DNA samples that can only be tested in Nairobi, 684 kilometers  to the southeast.

When the court asked for DNA samples in Maryam’s case, the Maslah ruled that Maryam should marry Mohamed, the suspect in the case. Neither Maryam nor her mother, who has since been divorced from her husband, accepted the idea of Maryam marrying her rapist.

Many of the officials in the working group told Civic Ideas that the practice of a rape victim being forcibly married to the perpetrator is common. The Maslah elders can rule that the rapist marries their victim if found guilty. Most of the time, the victims do not have a choice but to accept. In other instances, the perpetrator is fined by the Maslah a given number of livestock which are payable to the girl’s clan.

“The livestock are shared among the male members of the clan and nothing will be given to the girl,” said Sofia Gedi, a gender activist who runs a community-based organization that champions the rights of women . “People are sharing livestock under a tree and the girl is not there. Who then is going to be the father of the child? Is it the livestock?”

It is because of such denial of justice to survivors of rape and gender-based violence that the technical working group resolved to fight it. Gedi has the scars to show for her decades of work in fighting for girls’ rights in Wajir County. She has been assaulted several times for going against Maslah and the Somali traditions in a bid to defend women’s rights.

For the two years since the technical working group started cooperating, there has been an increase in the number of cases reported to the police, in those successfully prosecuted and in criminals sent to jail. According to the police in Wajir, last year a total of 16 rape cases and 21 defilement cases were reported. Out of those, nine cases were concluded and all were convicted and are serving sentences of over 15 years.

At her grandmother’s compound, Maryam sits on a mat, her back to the manyatta, the traditional Somali hut, and her 7-month-old son on her lap; she has a faraway look in her eyes, waiting and hoping that justice will come soon. Only a primary school girl last year, she now has a baby whom she can’t provide for and instead depends on her mother, a shopkeeper.

In Wajir town, the working group meets to tackle more cases like Maryam’s but its members know that within the vast, arid county, there are victims of rape and gender violence that go unreported to the police and where Maslah still reigns.

Still, Guhad, from Mercy Corps, is optimistic that the attitude is slowly changing. “Unlike the past when they were solving it (rape) at the community level and not reporting to the police, since the launch of the gender desk, the trend is changing and at least people are coming up, they are reporting and they are getting justice,” she said.

This article was updated on Aug. 1, 2017, to note that Somali elders declined to comment.