Women in Kenya’s slums still dealing with post-election sexualized violence

By — June 5, 2012

The loud, unexpected laughter stuck with me long after my conversation about sexualized violence with a women’s group from Kibera—Kenya’s biggest slum, located on the outskirts of Nairobi, and one of the hot spots for violence in the post-election conflict of 2007-2008.

Feminist writers like Julia Kristeva speak about laughter as a basic example of how patriarchy, or the “symbolic order,” can be ruptured or challenged. Laughter can “pluralize, pulverize, and ‘musicate’” certain “truths,” like the idea that women are objects without their own subjectivity.

It was this idea that I was reminded of when I asked the women’s group why they thought sexualized violence was so prevalent during the post-election conflict. I was sitting in a crowded room, with a dozen women sitting in a tight circle. The group’s office is a small structure—just one of many disheveled shacks made of tin, mud, and sticks that run into each other in an off-kilter maze of ramshackle shops and homes.

The response I got was that women, largely excluded from the political process, paid a high and disproportionate price for men’s wrath. This answer was accompanied by a cautiously irreverent titter, which started nervously with one or two women and eventually grew to a tumult.

Women in the Kibera slum outside Nairobi told the author that they paid a high price for men’s wrath after the 2007-2008 elections. (St. Aloysius Gonzaga High School Journalism Club)

Politics is still a hugely male-dominated game in Kenya, as illustrated by the fact that less than 10 percent of the 222 MPs sitting on Kenya’s National Assembly are female. That women can be so excluded from the political process and yet be so affected by the aftermath made the derisive laughter from the women’s group all the more bitter. But it was also the sound of solidarity: A community of women was taking comfort and finding strength in each other’s company and experiences.  

The post-election violence occurred in the face of a dispute, split down tribal lines, over who won the 2007 election. This quickly developed into tribal clashes in which more than 1,000 people died and hundreds of thousands were displaced, according to news reports.

While sexualized violence is seemingly under-documented compared to other types of violence that occurred during the conflict, there is evidence to suggest that gender-based violence was significant. As reported by the Nairobi-based Centre for Rights Education and Awareness (CREAW), police data for 2007 indicated that there were approximately 3,000 cases of rape, defilement, indecent assault, and abduction reported. With hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the violence, women were sometimes forced to have sex in exchange for food and shelter, said Christina Siebert of the Heinrich Boll Foundation in Nairobi. Ninety percent of the rape cases the Nairobi Women’s Hospital Gender Violence Recovery Centre treated during the conflict were gang rape, according to the hospital. This is probably partially due to the fact that other forms of sexualized violence appear not to be as recognized among the women of Kibera as against the law and therefore go unreported.

Many of the women I spoke to in Kibera told me that the shame and stigma attached to sexualized violence, as well as the fact that the perpetrators were policemen or that victims feared the police, kept them silent. Sometimes women said they’d remained quiet because of the unaffordable financial costs associated with court cases and medical treatment.

I first met one victim of the conflict’s gender-based violence in 2010 when I was working with an HIV/AIDS support nonprofit group in Kibera. This 18-year-old woman was too ashamed to seek help or report being gang-raped as she was fleeing the violent rioting, looting, and burning, fearing that as a Kikuyu (a minority tribe in Kibera) she would be targeted by angry men from the Luo tribe who had wanted a victory from then-candidate, now prime minister, Raila Odinga. Her fears were warranted. She is now HIV-positive and still has three years of high school to complete because trauma, shame, and poor health have kept her at home.

A 55-year-old woman told me how she watched rioting civilians gang-rape a 12-year-old neighbor outside her house in Kibera, but that she could not leave her home where she was holed up with her daughter, fearing for her life. She told me that the people rioting and looting were high on drugs and alcohol, that they were caught up in a mob mentality and knew they would not be held accountable for their actions.

She was right: According to Human Rights Watch, no rape cases from that time have resulted in convictions, and police officers who were responsible for many of the rapes seem to have absolute impunity.

However, as one twentysomething man from Kibera told me, it may not have been always simple lawlessness that spurred sexualized violence throughout Kenya during the post-election conflict: “Many youths in Nairobi had been called to the statehouse and told by certain politicians to go and destroy people, to burn their houses and kill them, and, you know, rape is a part of that destruction,” he said.

These allegations have not been verified—no politician involved is going to admit to them, and it's difficult to find a civilian willing to attach their name to such a claim—but they are common among Kenyan citizens. Individuals from the infamous Mungiki gang (a widely feared gang of the Kikuyu tribe) have purportedly alleged that they were paid by politicians to incite violence during the 2007 elections, Paige Aarhus reported in “The Mungiki, the Taliban, and Me.”

The young man I spoke with, a friend of the women’s group, said he was not sure that the upcoming election (set to take place toward the end of this year or the beginning of 2013) would be peaceful. “Those leaders in the Hague” are still influencing people and the tribal way of thinking is still evident, he said. The leaders he mentions refer to six high-profile suspects, known as the “Ocampo Six,” that have been named by International Criminal Court prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo as under investigation for crimes against humanity and inciting the violence that took place during the post-election conflict. In January this year, ICC judges confirmed charges against four of the six, including Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta, according to Human Rights Watch.

Many of the women I spoke to in Kibera also have fears that the next election will turn violent. They are saving money to send their children to stay with relatives in other areas of Kenya during the election period, but due to lack of funds and the need to work, most of the mothers, many of them single, will remain behind in Kibera. Despite the laughter earlier in our conversation, there were no chuckles or smiles on the lips of these women when talk turned to the uncertain period ahead.

Deanna Simpson is a student of international development and philosophy at the University of Queensland in Australia. She has spent the past six months working as an intern at UN-HABITAT in Kenya, as well as on community development projects with youth in the Kibera slum.