By Prudence Mutiso
Attorney, International Justice Mission, Kenya
As the world battles the COVID-19 pandemic, many women and girls continue to face sexual and gender-based violence. According to UNDP, 243 Million women have suffered a form of violence in the past twelve months, with one in every three women facing some form of sexual and gender-based violence (“SGBV”) in their lifetime. In Kenya, data from the Kenya Demographic and Health Survey shows that 45 percent of women and girls face a form of gender-based violence annually, translating to close to eleven million women. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the violence against women in Kenya.
Between March 16th to April 1st, 2020, the National Council on Administration of Justice reported a significant spike in sexual offenses in many parts of the country with sexual violence cases constituting 35.8 percent of the cases reported during that period. UN organizations in Kenya attribute the rising SGBV cases to financial hardship due to restriction of movement and curfews affecting livelihoods, especially in the informal sector. The quarantine and social distancing requirements have also amplified individual stress levels leading to tense households with the risk of violence.
According to practitioners representing SGBV victims, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted many SGBV cases. Since March 16th to date, cases have stalled as the courts have had to adjourn hearings, victims in new cases have experienced delays, and organizations discontinued the much-needed free counseling sessions. In the wake of the pandemic, the Kenyan Judiciary resolved to adapt technologically driven solutions to ensure the delivery of justice. However, in a country where only one in five people have access to internet services, access to justice has apparent challenges. For example, many indigent victims may lack the means or access to stable internet services in the city or rural Kenya and may end up missing court appointments. Also, in a bid to fast track adjudication of cases, there is a fear of courts dismissing cases without victim’s participation.
For these reasons, as agencies implement the COVID-19 response and recovery plans, the stakeholders should consider the centrality of the victims and adopt strategies that promote the rights of victims in the new normal. First, the courts should accord victims or their legal representatives the opportunity to participate before making decisions affecting their cases. To do that, the judiciary should coordinate with the Kenya Police and the Prosecution to notify the victims of upcoming court hearings and facilitate their access to the online platforms.
Second, due to the increased risk of violence attributed to the pandemic, the State should consider operating online counseling services through the toll-free lines such as the Child Helpline 116 and the Helpline 1195. Through the helplines, the State can ensure twenty-four-hour online counseling support for SGBV victims and families at risk of violence. Third, as in other countries, the Kenyan civil society should consider providing a dedicated twenty-four-hour legal aid online service to provide support to SGBV victims. In effect, these services would provide much-needed support in addressing SGBV during this unprecedented time.
There is no one solution best suited to address the rising scourge of SGBV in Kenya. The situation requires the adoption of multisector mechanisms, that should also include men—as allies and preventors. Adopting holistic approaches at the family, community and national levels can help deal with the issue at a faster pace.
Prudence Mutiso is an Advocate of the High Court of Kenya and an Attorney at the International Justice Mission. She holds an LLM from The Georgetown University School of Law.