Violence against women is “never acceptable, never excusable, never tolerable.” The UN Secretary-General
March 8, 2011 marked the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day (IWD). Since 1911 when the day was first celebrated in Russia, many milestones have marked the gains made since the women’s movement started. This year, I joined other women from around the world to celebrate the day in Mombasa at the Kwetu Training Center, where a Women’s Listening event had been organized by a partnership of women from Australia, Canada, Kenya and Britain. The Women’s Listening Event was a time to listen to the stories and experiences of women in the face of struggles against poverty, disease, violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and illiteracy.
When I returned to my village after three very inspiring and empowering days, I discovered that a neighbor had killed herself because she was tired of frequent beatings form her husband. She had run away from him many times, but every time she left, after a couple of months, he would send elders to go for her; she would go back because ‘a woman never says no to elders.’ Every time she went back, she would hope that this time around, her husband had changed for real. The last time she came back and her husband beat her to near-death, she said to him, “I will go where you will never find me.” She took poison and she died.
Last weekend, I attended a Youth Peace training that International Peace Initiatives convened for youth from all over Kenya. I heard unbelievable, heart-wrenching stories, like the following: Martina (not real name) was married and realized that her husband was cheating on her. She refused to sleep with her husband, who did not deny having a girlfriend because, as she put it, “she did not want to get HIV-infected.” Her husband went out and came with four men who gang raped her in her house as her husband watched. He said to her “you refused me so that you do not get AIDS. I have brought you people who will give it to you.” Martina did not know that if she went to the hospital within 72 hours she might have been saved from contracting the disease. Today she is HIV-positive and, with the help of some lawyers, is seeking help to initiate legal action against her husband.
These two cases took place in Kenya in 2011. Not in the 1780s or 1890s – in 2011, present-day Kenya. In 2011 Kenya, a husband can bring a gang of men who are HIV infected to gang rape his wife because she refuses to sleep with him due to his infidelity. In 2011, a woman commits suicide because of a violent husband. And in 2011, Kenya took part in nationally celebrating 100 years of International Women’s Day. We have made progress because in the 1990s we never celebrated this day as a nation.
Today, Kenya has created what has been called a progressive constitution that supports women’s rights and offers space for women to claim an equal playing ground with men for leadership positions. Article 27 (8) of the new constitution for example, guarantees women at least a third of all public appointments. In addition, the constitution clearly points out seats in parliament that must be filled by women. On another front, Kenya is a signatory of the United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 of 2000 in support of women’s rights, in addition to many UN and African Union women’s human rights documents. Kenya is currently preparing a National Action Plan to implement UNSCR 1325, which requires governments to include women in decision-making positions and involve them in peacebuilding processes in their nations.
In spite of Kenya’s new women-friendly constitution and these international, continental and local documents, many women in this country do not know their rights and have no idea where to go for help when their rights are violated. That is why my neighbor committed suicide by taking herself where her husband could no longer reach her. If there was a place where she could go for shelter and advice, she may be alive today.
Martina, on the other hand, discovered an organization that connected her with a legal advisor. However, for her, it was too late: she had already contracted HIV from the gang her husband brought to her house to rape her. If she had known she could be treated within 72 hours of that rape, she may be HIV-negative today. At least in her case she has a lawyer who is helping prosecute her husband and the rapists; I pray she succeeds!!
According to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Violence Against Women (CEDAW), domestic violence is “any act that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivations of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life… violence against women that shall be understood to encompass, but not limited to, physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring in the family, the community, including battery, sexual abuse of female children, dowry-related violence, marital rape, female genital mutilation and other traditional practices harmful to women, non-spousal violence, violence related to exploitation, sexual harassment and intimidation at work, in educational institutions and elsewhere, trafficking in women, forced prostitution, and violence against women perpetrated and condoned by the state.”
Worldwide, discrimination and violence against women are common. That is why in 1946, seventeen women who were among the delegates at the founding meetings of the United Nations in San Francisco met and decided that the rights of women were not being given the priority they deserved. They helped establish a UN Commission on Human Rights, and pushed to establish a full Commission on the Status of Women. The UN Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) had its first meeting in January 1947, and the UN Commission on the Status of Women (UNCSW) had its first meeting in February 1947.
Although insufficiently funded and having no secretariat or centre of its own, the UNCSW nevertheless placed women’s rights firmly on the agenda of the United Nations. Since then, many more international and regional protocols and agreements have been made and signed to further ground nation’s commitment to ending violence against women globally.
The historic UN World Conference on Human Rights was held in Vienna in 1993. In 1991, women held worldwide hearings on violations of women’s human rights and collected more than 500,000 signatures demanding that women’s human-rights issues (particularly violence against women) be placed on the UNCHR conference agenda and not merely discussed by a small group during sessions of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (UNCSW). Women called for a Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, and demanded a tribunal on crimes against women. The resulting Vienna Declaration put violations of women’s human rights on the world’s agenda, setting a global stage for action.
Kenya and Tanzania are two African countries which have taken proactive action on this issue. In the 1980s, the issue of violence against women was becoming a national disgrace in Tanzania. A group of women met to discuss and take action on this growing problem. They decided to take a multifaceted plan of action. They circulated information on the rights of women throughout the country. They showed how violations of women’s rights damaged the very fabric of their society. Men as well as women were educated on the rights of women and made to understand that violence was not an answer to problems within the home, or anywhere else. At the same time, the government was lobbied to pass legislation to give women protection against violence. Safe houses and places of refuge were established, where women could escape with or without their children.
The Tanzania Media Women’s Association (TAMWA) was formed, with a special mission to address the question of violence against women. Today, TAMWA has a regular newsletter, a resource centre, a crisis centre, and a refuge centre. Laws have been passed strengthening women’s rights, and female lawyers have joined the effort to put an end to gender-based violence.
In Kenya, some progress has been made in ensuring that violence against women is understood and effectively addressed. The Federation of Women Lawyers of Kenya (FIDA-K) carried out a study on domestic violence in Kenya titled ‘Gender Based Domestic Violence in Kenya: A study of the Coast, Nairobi, Nyanza and Western Kenya Provinces of Kenya’ in 2007. The study reveals that gender based violence and intimate partner violence is increasing: 74.5 per cent of people interviewed in the Coast, Nairobi, Nyanza and Western Provinces indicated that they had been physically abused within their homestead. Findings of a 2008/2009 Kenya Health and Demographic Survey (DHS) revealed that 39 per cent of women reported being physically or sexually assaulted by their husbands or partners during their lifetime.
Human rights-based and gender-aware approaches to peace, development, conflict and security highlight that concepts like development and peace must be embedded in the lived experiences of people. For example, the absence of armed conflict does not necessarily mean the end of violence. It is important to promote an inclusive peace and human security for women and men, girls and boys, around the world. In Kenya, this means securing governmental commitment to recognizing various ways violence is meted out to women, and to eradicating all forms of violence against women and children. In addition, strategies must be established for providing information to help women in distress, especially in rural areas. Critical is the understanding that for effective interventions to fight violence against women and children, women MUST be included in all peace and security decision making processes.
Kenyan women are largely excluded from most Kenyan peace and security decision-making processes, despite their enormous potential to contribute to their success and sustainability. Women’s and children’s issues and concerns are not adequately addressed in Kenya’s reform agenda and policy documents. Differential implications of reforms and policies are not fully understood or considered, thus giving lip service to actions that would mainstrean gender and women’s human rights in Kenya’s reform agenda and policies. Unless women are recognized as equal participants in all decision making mechanisms as well as peace and security initiatives in Kenya, there will never be inclusive peace and security for everyone in the nation – especially for women like Martina and my neighbour who committed suicide. This exclusion results in leaving out significant voices of women leading to marginalization that continues to make the search for sustainable peace and stable communities in Kenya elusive.
The inadequate representation of women and women's concerns in Kenya has been explained away by weak excuses framed within tough cultural terms, to maintain the status quo. Obstacles to women's inclusion include patriarchy, which is embedded in local culture and socialization processes; additionally, women are assumed to lack formal expertise or be unrepresentative of all local women. These allegations are mere excuses to keep women from participating in decision-making processes, and yet many women have been so conditioned to see themselves as third-class citizens that they cannot see the possibility of overcoming these cultural and societal barriers. There is critical need for capacity building – for women to raise their voices and increase their participation in conflict prevention, leadership, development and other peace and security processes within the framework of UNSCR 1325.
UN Security Council Resolution 1325 underlines the important role women play in prevention, response and resolution of conflicts, peace negotiations, peacebuilding, peacekeeping, humanitarian response and in post conflict reconstruction. It also emphasizes the importance of women’s equal participation and full involvement in all efforts for the maintenance and promotion of peace and security. Kenya is a signatory of UNSCR 1325 and is laudably in the processes of creating a UNSCR 1325 National Action Plan (NAP). This process requires concerted effort from stakeholders including government institutions, civil society, development partners and higher learning institutions, leading to establishment of a National Steering Committee. This Committee will provide guidance to strengthen coordination of actions towards implementation of the UNSCR1325. Adopting a NAP on UNSCR 1325, thus domesticating it in Kenya, will be a great stride taken towards creating possibilities for inclusion of the significant voices of women in all peace and security decision making processes in the country. This will light the path to sustainable peace and nonviolent stable communities in Kenya.
Every society desires sustainable peace. Sustainable peace in Kenya cannot be attained without protecting women and children from violence, and including them in decision-making processes. Sustainable peace is only viable when the perspectives, needs and concerns of all stakeholders are voiced. The unequal and inadequate representation of women in peace and security processes is unacceptable. As long as women continue to suffer horrendous experiences like those of my neighbor and Martina, Kenya will remain a nation in gendered chains chocking the life out of sustainable peace.
Some organizations, like International Peace Initiatives (IPI: www.ipeacei.org), are taking the lead in ensuring women’s voices continue to rise and to be heard. IPI promotes human rights for women and children in the context of HIV/AIDS, poverty and violence; gender equality; and women’s full and equal participation in decision making in all positions of governance, peace processes, post-conflict reconstruction and the reform of security institutions. Through workshops, seminars and information/experience sharing forums, women come together to empower each other and transform their lives. Women are recognized as active participants in conflict, peace-builders, political actors, activists and proactive agents of social transformation. Rather than portraying all women as helpless victims of violence, the diversity of roles they play in the perpetuation of conflict, as well as agents of change in conflict prevention, resolution and transformation, peacekeeping and peacebuilding are addressed. Women are not victims of violence; rather, they are active transformation agents for peace. Women bring perspectives that help balance and bring wholeness to situations that affect people within families and in communities. Viewed in this light, it is not difficult to see that their exclusion from decision making is a regrettable loss for any family, community and country. IPI works to help raise the voices of women and highlight the important work women do for peace, security and development in Kenya.
IPI is a key player in the ongoing process of creating Kenya’s UNSCR 1325 National Action Plan. The NAP will go a long way in mainstreaming inclusive peace and security for women in Kenya, ensuring that women are included in all peace, security and development decision processes of the land; and more importantly, that their voice is heard and their views presented. To this end, IPI hopes to set up a radio program on gender-based violence, safe homes for battered women and a rescue/information center in Meru.
In 2011, violence against women CANNOT be acceptable, is NOT excusable, and should NOT be tolerated!! My neighbor went where no one could bother her ever again. Martina now lives with the HIV/AIDS virus. In 2011, no woman, anywhere in the world, should suffer such terrible experiences again.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 30 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most unheard regions of the world.