Amid Reports of Widespread Rape by Police, Kenyan Women Seek Justice
Sixty-five Kenyan women say they experienced sexual violence at the hands of state security agents last fall. Now, survivors are turning to activists for help in the harrowing task of reporting the police to the police.
Illustration by Julia Kuo
Three days after being discharged from the hospital, Winnie Ogot of Kisumu, Kenya was back to fielding phone calls and traveling to and from women’s homes, though the open wound on her face was still oozing, pink, and raw.
Ogot, who some know as “Auntie Gender” for her outspokenness on women’s issues, alleges that she was brutally beaten by policemen. But she didn’t have time to convalesce, she said: Disenfranchised women who claimed they’d been raped by state security agents were asking her for help.
“I could not just sit there,” she said. “Women would come to me and say, ‘What do we do? They came in and I was raped, this is what happened. Come out to help me.’”
In the past few months, Ogot has helped numerous women report their rapes to the authorities—though countless more have been hesitant to speak up, given the widespread and well-documented brutality of Kenyan state police against the civilians they’re meant to protect. Following a botched country-wide election in August and its rerun in October, heavy-handed state security agents clashed with demonstrators in cities nationwide, sowing tension and chaos.
Kenyan police allegedly committed numerous crimes against humanity during this period, according to a recent Human Rights Watch report, including widespread sexual violence: Sixty-five women told HRW they were raped by policemen or uniformed men during the course of the two elections and their violent aftermaths. One-third of these women say they were assaulted inside their homes in the presence of family members, including young children—testimony consistent with what Ogot said she had been hearing.
It was two weeks after the rerun election, in October, that Ogot said she was attacked. She told Broadly she was cornered by a group of uniformed men in three marked police Land Cruisers, whom she believes were Administration Police. They emerged from the vehicles, clobbered her with stones, and took notebooks and cash she had been carrying, she said. She was left with severe blunt force injuries that required surgery and over a week in the hospital.
“When the people were frightened and asked, ‘Why are you killing us,’ the uniformed men said, ‘We can’t go back to Nairobi with those bullets.’”
While Ogot can't verify the motives of her attackers, she acknowledged that there is a lot that might make her a target: She works as one of hundreds of election monitors employed by the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, tasked with documenting any potential electoral malpractice at voting centers across the country and with detailing incidences of violence and other human rights violations. She has also appeared on several radio stations to condemn police brutality in Kisumu. Even though many others have publicly protested police violence, few have been as vocal or involved with accusers as her.
Then, of course, there’s the fact that she assists survivors to file police reports for crimes allegedly committed by police themselves—a harrowing task that, though seemingly useless and risky to most survivors, is an inconveniently necessary first step for any chance of legal redress, medical care, and maybe, one day, justice. Without submitting an official report, survivors effectively have no hope of one day receiving reparations from the state.
In many instances, women attempting to file reports of their assaults were turned away repeatedly, refused documents, or asked to pay for forms that should have been free, said Ogot. Survivors were sometimes told that they could only report if they could identify the perpetrator or that only senior police administrators could handle those kinds of cases, all of which are untrue. Another barrier to seeking post-rape care is simply transportation to public medical centers: many women just cannot afford to travel back and forth from peri-urban slums to hospitals in town.
Even for those who can afford the trip, it can be unsafe. The level of police deployment following the elections has imposed a martial order akin to military occupation, fostering a sense of impunity for officers, who regularly question lone women in the streets about their whereabouts—often to the point of harassment. Any woman would feel at risk alone in public, let alone a survivor on her way to the police station attempting to file a report against the police themselves. With little recourse, survivors rely on activists like Ogot for guidance and support.
Joseph Boinnet, the Inspector General of the Kenyan National Police Service, has not responded officially to the HRW report. Assistant Inspector General of Police and Spokesperson Charles Owino did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this article.
Kisumu, a stronghold of the political opposition in Kenya, was particularly hard-hit by election-related violence this year. In the first round of elections held on August 8, incumbent president Uhuru Kenyatta achieved a controversial victory over longtime opposition leader and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga. His triumph, however, was marred by suspicious irregularities in the transmission of voting results and the recent unsolved torture and murder of a high-ranking member of Kenya’s Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission.
On September 1, the Supreme Court of Kenya nullified the results of that August election and called for fresh elections. However, Odinga’s subsequent calls for reforms that would prevent further malfeasance were met with disregard and, moreover, legislative amendments that appeared to further corrupt electoral integrity. In cities across the country, thousands flooded streets in protest. After the opposition boycotted the October 26 election rerun entirely, these anti-election demonstrations, heaviest in Nairobi and parts of western Kenya like Kisumu, intensified as the election date approached.
“The silence of the police administration around this is tantamount to sanctioning police violence.”
Paramilitary units comprised of a variety of police forces were deployed to quell riots that broke out in opposition strongholds—“hotspots,” as top security administrators called them. Police are reported to have used live ammunition on protesters, and uniformed officers raided homes and beat, stole from, and raped civilians in the slums of Nairobi as well as major cities in western Kenya such as Kisumu and Bungoma. These instances were documented by KNCHR in both of their post-election reports and, even before the election rerun, decried by opposition leaders and publicly by Kisumu’s Governor, Anyang’ Nyong’o. (“When the people were frightened and asked, ‘Why are you killing us,’ the uniformed men said, ‘We can’t go back to Nairobi with those bullets,’” said Nyong’o at a press conference on October 25.) KNCHR’s most recent figure alleges that 67 Kenyans were killed by police between the August election and its October rerun, including ten children.
According to survivors’ accounts given to Ogot and relayed by her to Broadly, when police invaded homes, they would first beat the men and drag them out of the house, sometimes forcing them to drink sewer water or perform sexual acts with objects. Then the officers would enter the home, beat the women, and rape them or subject them to other degrading sexual acts. Some victims were children.
In the HRW report, one survivor (whose real name is omitted for safety) describes her alleged rape by three policemen in Nairobi. They beat her teenage son then raped her vaginally and anally while he watched, she said. “I am so traumatized, I didn’t finish taking the drugs that they gave me at the clinic,” she told HRW researchers. “I think of my child seeing what happened to me. Sometimes I think of killing myself. They destroyed me. I have never thought of being penetrated there. My husband left after I told him.”
Watch: Kenyans are risking their lives to keep track of killer cops
In August, Ogot helped three women from Nyalenda, a slum in Kisumu, report their rapes to the police, but when their husbands found out that their wives had been raped, they divorced them. Other survivors heard this and decided that they would rather “die with the crime”—as one woman told her—than risk their marriages by reporting. According to Ogot, many also feared retaliation, which, given the Kenyan police’s record of extrajudicial killings, was not unfounded. This widespread fear has a profound silencing effect: In a recent press release, KNCHR announced that its forthcoming report will include testimonies of 86 survivors of sexual violence during the election after-math, only two of which had officially reported.
“Women are already predisposed to sexual violence, but during conflict, this effect is heightened and weaponized,” Tina Alai told Broadly. She is Kenya’s Head of the Office for the organization Physicians for Human Rights, which equips medical and legal professionals to harness forensic evidence to support accountability for crimes against humanity. In conflict situations such as post-election instability, she explained, sexual violence against civilians becomes both a form of arbitrary collective punishment and an occasion for opportunistic crime that may otherwise be prosecuted. “The silence of the police administration around this is tantamount to sanctioning police violence.”
Only a handful of Kenyan police have ever been investigated for sexual crimes, and in the last few decades, not a single officer has been prosecuted for conflict-related sexual violence against civilians in Kenya.
On one hand, Kenyan law is progressive when it comes to sexual offenses. The Sexual Offenses Act (2006) guarantees the right of sexual assault victims to free medical treatment. Article 35 was expanded in 2012 to include prescribed standards for what these free medical treatments should look like—spelling out the involvement of police, completion of the post-rape care form, referral to physical and psychosocial treatment, and transmission of forensic evidence to an investigative officer. But, according to reports, none of these standards are being upheld.
With the collapse of public order, Alai said, “there ought to be special measures put in place to ensure that victims have access to emergency care—including special considerations for police cases—in an environment sensitive to the nuances of sexual violence.”
In 2007, another controversial election triggered a cascade of retaliatory ethnic massacres that led to a total breakdown of public order, the deaths of over 1,100 Kenyans, mass internal displacement, and over 900 cases of sexual violence documented by major hospitals.
In 2013, Kenyatta and Ruto were indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity—including sexual violence—during the 2007-08 post-election violence. But when the pair was elected into office in 2013, becoming the first heads of state to have appeared before the ICC, their cases were dropped. With that, sexual violence survivors’ hopes of getting justice through international courts appeared to end.
Two years into his first term, Kenyatta, in his State of the Nation address to the National Assembly, promised to set up a 10 billion shilling ($97 million) fund for restorative justice, apparently meant to compensate for the glaring absence of any prosecutions for crimes committed during the 2007-08 post-election violence. Alai worked alongside other members of the Kenya Transitional Justice Network to develop a legal framework with the Office of the Attorney General to operationalize the fund. But, to this day, the fund has not been set up. “We haven’t seen a cent,” she said.
Alai believes that survivors and their allies cannot rely on government goodwill, or even the media and fellow civilians, to bring accountability to the state. Rather, survivors need to lean into legal avenues. She noted that last year, former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré was convicted to life in prison for crimes against humanity, including sexual violence and enslavement. It was the first time a former head of state had been convicted of this charge in courts of another country; it was the culmination of a two-decade struggle.
“The thing that made the difference was the survivors,” Alai emphasized. “The survivors were at the forefront of the movement.” Ogot agreed. Despite the huge risks that survivors face when they testify, she said, it is the difference between these perennial silent emergencies and a hard-won victory.
In 2013, eight survivors of sexual assault during 2007 and 2008 post-election violence filed a constitutional petition in the High Court of Kenya, calling on the government to prosecute these acts as crimes against humanity. Supported by a coalition of NGOs—including Alai’s—they claimed that the government violated the Constitution by failing to prosecute police who committed crimes or offer reparations to victims. The decision will arrive next year.
“If we are successful, it could be a landmark case for conflict-related sexual violence,” said Alai. “What obligation does the state have to prevent sexual violence? What obligations do they have in regards to investigations and prosecutions? What does the state do when the victim does not report to the police? Does it mean the victim does not have a case or that the case did not happen?” These are all questions that she hopes, if answered, will allow courts to assign responsibility and center the judicial process around survivors.
On January 9, Agnes Odhiambo, the lead author of the HRW report, was called to meet with five officials of the police’s Internal Affairs Unit. They had formed a task force to investigate police involvement in sexual violence and wanted her insight on ways to overcome sparse forensic evidence and to prioritize survivors’ wellbeing. Although the process is still in its early stages, as nothing has been formally constituted or documented yet, it is difficult to overlook the fact that a similar task force formed in 2008 amounted to little change. “As far as I know, nothing came from it,” said Odhiambo. “To date there has not been a public report on the process.”
But after a moment she adds, “I’m skeptical but hopeful. You have to have hope.”