According to the World Bank, 1 in 3 women worldwide experience sexual or gender-based violence (SGBV) in their lifetime. In Kenya, that statistic is even higher, with 45% of women and girls aged 15-49 experiencing some form of physical violence, and 14% experiencing sexual violence.
During this year’s 16 Days of Activism, CFK discussed the issue of SGBV with Susan, a Clinical Officer at Tabitha Medical Clinic who has experience working with survivors of SGBV. Employed by AMREF and working at the Tabitha Medical Clinic for the past year, Susan shared how economic and cultural factors influence SGBV and discussed interventions that can help address the issue.
About SGBV and GBV
“Gender-based violence (GBV) is a harmful act directed at an individual based on their gender, and it undermines the health, security, and autonomy of survivors,” Susan explained.
Reducing SGBV requires a multi-pronged approach that includes empowering girls with accurate information, addressing violence against girls in school, providing information about the dangers of child marriage, mobilizing the community to value and protect girls, and educating boys and young men on women’s rights and sexual and reproductive health.
“The girls want to be heard and respected,” Susan said. “They want to make decisions for themselves, so it is important that we listen to their experiences, help them share their views, and give them accurate and critical information about health.”
Community Buy-in and Male Involvement
Though empowering girls and providing them with accurate information and support is part of the multi-faceted solution to SGBV, “it is also important to engage the community and get them on board to mitigate SGBV.” CFK includes community mobilization and male involvement strategies in its approach to the issue of SGBV.
For example, CFK’s Girls Empowerment Program (GEP) has partnered with schools to pilot boys-only safe spaces, where boys connect with male mentors, learn about women’s rights, and develop into advocates for girls in their community. The three schools that piloted the program have reported zero instances of teenage pregnancy and no cases of girls’ harassment.
Susan noted that strategies like these “instill a sense of responsibility in boys, so they treat girls like their own sisters.”
Child Marriage, Period Poverty, and SGBV
Changing community perceptions about women and girls will also help challenge harmful cultural norms such as child marriage.
Early marriages remain common in many Kenyan communities, and a national demographic and health survey found that nearly a quarter of girls in Kenya were married before their 18th birthday. Local myths about child marriage also fuel the high prevalence of the issue. For example, Susan shared that some communities believe that marrying a virgin can assist people battling HIV.
While cultural norms and widespread myths contribute to high rates of SGBV, poverty is the main challenge exacerbating the issue.
“When girls can’t afford basic needs such as food and water, they leave the house to fend for themselves or find someone who can help support them,” Susan said.
For example, period poverty is a significant issue affecting girls and young women in Kenya. An estimated 50-65% of girls in Kenya do not have access to sanitary products. This statistic is likely even higher for girls in Kibera, where the average resident lives on less than $2 per day. This lack of access causes many girls to miss school or engage in unhealthy practices such as sharing pads or trading sex for pads.
Trading sex for pads can expose vulnerable girls to a range of sexually transmitted infections and diseases and can also force them into dangerous and manipulative relationships, which often lead to instances of SGBV.
“A child can’t bargain for safe sex or report the matter if it happens,” Susan explained.
Barriers to Justice
Worldwide, only 40% of GBV survivors report the experience to someone, and less than 10% report cases to a “formal source” such as an authority. Even girls who do report instances of SGBV struggle to achieve justice. In Kenya, perpetrators of SGBV typically have more resources than victims, and they often bribe authorities to dismiss SGBV cases. This unjust practice further discourages survivors from reporting cases or seeking help.
“We need to challenge the culture of silence,” Susan noted. “Survivors of SGBV should know that we are never judging them; it is not their fault. They are not alone, and we will assist them in any way that we can. We offer counseling, provide medical support if needed, and make appropriate referrals to ensure they get the quality care that they need.”
Many non-governmental organizations (NGOs), including the Human Rights Watch, fear that the COVID-19 pandemic and related government lockdowns will lead to an increase in SGBV cases in Kenya and make it more difficult for girls to report cases. The combination of job losses, school closures, and curfews further limit girls’ already scarce access to sanitary products. Additionally, social, emotional, and physical support for survivors of SGBV may also be limited as many healthcare facilities focus on responding to the pandemic.
Creating a Path to Justice for Survivors
Achieving justice for survivors requires support from the entire community, including residents, authorities, and NGOs. Currently, the Kibera community engages with local chiefs and mobilizes young men to support and protect young girls. Community members also connect girls to safe houses where they can find shelter from abusive relationships.
In partnership with other local organizations, CFK provides direct support for survivors of SGBV, offering counseling and medical care and helping those who wish to report an SGBV case pursue legal action. The organization also works at the grassroots level to sensitize community members about women’s rights, sexual and reproductive health, and SGBV.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, CFK responded to increased economic challenges and fears about SGBV by providing Dignity Kits to girls. These packages include underwear, feminine hygiene products, soap, and sanitizer, saving girls an average of 389 KSH (~$3.89 USD) per month and mitigating the need for girls to engage in unsafe practices for sanitary products.
This year, CFK also expanded psychosocial support for survivors by collaborating on a new project. The GEP partnered with the Adelle Onyango Initiative to support the development of Safe 24/7, a project providing free, long-term trauma therapy for survivors of SGBV. When launched, the project will provide psychologist-led psychosocial support sessions for survivors and provide them with an opportunity to develop a sisterhood, connect to additional resources, and develop critical coping strategies.