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COVID-19 Conversations: The Need for Safe Shelters in Kenya

A series of photos of women staring into the camera

The COVID-19 pandemic is exposing and exacerbating gender inequalities around the world. Equality Now is sharing insights from our  experts about how women’s and girls’ lives are being affected by the pandemic and what can be done to address the challenges.

This week, we talk to our End Sexual Violence Program Officer Jean-Paul Murunga to hear how a lack of shelters in Kenya is putting victims of sexual and gender based violence (SGBV) at further risk of abuse.

How is the pandemic making it harder to access justice for women and girls in Kenya who experience SGBV?

As in many countries, COVID-19 in Kenya has been accompanied by a shadow pandemic of SGBV. Since the government imposed quarantine restrictions to limit the spread of coronavirus, there has been a sharp increase in sexual violence. In many cases it is a relative or neighbor who is committing the offenses, and vulnerable women and girls are undergoing daily trauma trapped in close proximity with their attackers.

Many cases of SGBV go unreported. Sometimes it’s because the abuse happens within the immediate family, making it very hard for victims to speak out. School closures have removed a primary source of safeguarding for girls and made it more difficult for authorities to identify those in need and detect perpetrators committing harm. Children suffering violations who previously could have confided to teachers and classmates are now less able to seek help and get assistance.

It is already common for victims to receive threats from their attacker and those affiliated to them. This problem has been exacerbated during the pandemic as coronavirus containment measures mean suspects are being released from prison on bond rather than being kept in custody. Some offenders have absconded, others have returned home to intimidate their victims and families. The risk of bribery, coercion, and witness tampering has increased, with pressure being applied on victims to drop charges and settle cases “quietly” within the community.

Meanwhile, shelters have been overstretched and overwhelmed by impoverished women and girls fleeing abuse at home and in desperate need of somewhere safe to stay. Coronavirus protection measures mean that many refugees and children’s homes are unable to take new referrals, while some are requiring COVID-19 free certificates as a precaution.

In some instances, high demand for spaces means victims are only able to stay for a few weeks and are being released prematurely. In other places, safe houses have been closed down. The result is that women and girls in crisis have nowhere to go for protection and face the dreadful quandary of staying in abusive home situations or becoming homeless.

How are local civil society organizations and community groups stepping up to help?

Due to restriction of movement, grassroots civil society organizations are partnering with local community groups who are identifying violations against women and girls and providing victim support. This is helping to deepen understanding about the underlying forces driving SGBV and data is being captured that previously went unrecorded. It is also providing welcome validation for these groups and is amplifying their voices.

Police need to work with community-based organizations to trace perpetrators and bring them to justice. In some slum areas, police face security challenges. If they have good relationships with local organizations, it is easier for authorities to get help from community members when investigating crimes. Most of the time it is local NGOs that report SGBV cases to the police and the criminal justice system frequently relies on evidence provided by NGOs.

Equality Now has joined with other women’s rights organizations in Kenya to call on the government to ensure Kenya’s National Response Plans to COVID-19 are gender-responsive and address the specific needs of women and girls. This entails ensuring that victims have access to safe shelter and temporary accommodation that provides protection against SGBV.

Current and post-COVID planning should also seek to build the capacity of community based groups and grassroots NGOs that are playing an integral role in providing support to survivors and helping them to access justice.

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