Every year Valentine’s Day is celebrated with great relish & celebration. People show their affection for another person or people by sending cards, flowers or chocolates with messages of love.
But there is a tragic dark side which stays in the shadows, when considering violence against women, one is confronted with an apparent contradiction.
“If you don’t fight, silence will kill you,” says Kenyan musician Wendy Kemunto, explaining why – a month after suffering a sexual assault by two Kenyan rugby players early in 2018 – she finally went to the police. For several weeks Wendy had remained silent, blaming herself, paralysed by a toxic mixture of shame, fear and well-founded dread at the usual & insensitive treatment of sexual assault victims by law-enforcement agencies.
But in November 2019, the two rugby players were each handed 15-year jail terms for rape, and now Wendy is speaking out to encourage more women to report such crimes.
Currently less than a third of victims report their ordeal, but data shows more than one in three women globally have experienced physical or sexual violence. In the face of such figures we can no longer shrug our collective shoulders and ignore the misogyny that fosters and encourages sexual violence.
When you know that only a tiny proportion of reported rapes ever make it to court, it is easy to understand, perhaps, why so few rape victims come forward.
The conviction of Wendy’s attackers is an encouraging sign that the Kenyan justice system is shifting from a trend where such cases - particularly those that involve high-profile individuals - remain in limbo in the courts, leaving a swathe of victims of violent assault not only without sufficient legal protection, but with the additional trauma of facing societal stigma.
The commemoration of the International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM last week is another reminder that all forms of gender based violence are not merely vestiges of historical harmful cultures, but are practices that continue to impoverish women and their families, and lower the productivity of entire countries.
With ever more studies illustrating the developmental hazards of sexual and gender violence, it is to our collective shame that, in the words of UN Secretary-General Mr. Antonio Guterres, women’s rights are increasingly being “reduced, restricted and reversed”.
Around 120 million girls worldwide have experienced forced intercourse or other forced sexual acts, with current or former husbands, partners or boyfriends the most common perpetrators. Around 700 million women alive today were married as children. Of those women, more than one in three—or some 250 million—were married before the age of 15.
The UNDP Africa Human Development Report for 2016 says, “Gender inequality is costing sub-Saharan Africa on average $US95 billion a year”. The justice system, supported by the necessary legislation, must pursue individuals who commit such acts with the same vigour that we use to go after economic saboteurs.
Countries must begin by fast-tracking the implementation of progressive policy commitments and institutional frameworks on gender equality and women’s empowerment. For instance, the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa has yet to secure universal ratification.
Beyond policies, there is an enormous task ahead in changing the mind-set of insidious male entitlement that finds expression through sexual and gender based violence.
The natural place to begin must be in the home, where husbands must not only set an example of respect for their wives but also raise their sons to value girls and to respect their rights and autonomy. Schools must teach respect and gender equality to both sexes.
Such early formation is invaluable in dealing with societies that see gender based violence and misogyny as expressions of “culture” and “tradition”. In my own country India, culture and concepts such as ‘family honour’ have continued as the distorting lenses through which gender based violence, patriarchy and misogyny are seen.
President Uhuru Kenyatta must be commended for his unequivocal message that such deeply-embedded practices as female genital mutilation and early marriages will not go unpunished.
As the United Nations in Kenya, we believe this leadership is crucial for programmes such as the Government of Kenya and UN Joint Program on the Prevention and Response to Gender-Based Violence, which is supporting the establishment of strong prevention interventions and protection mechanisms for survivors.
While the case of Wendy Kemunto is an encouraging win for assault victims, we must remember that most victims remain invisible, as male-controlled money and power keep their plight hidden. Many are poor and ill-educated. Countless are growing up in cultures where their life chances are severely diminished simply by virtue of their gender.
So on this Valentines Day, Kenya has an opportunity to lead the way in showing that institutions and structures are ready, willing and able to enforce equal and fair treatment of all women.
Siddharth Chatterjee is the United Nations Resident Coordinator to Kenya