Jan 17, 2014

    How to end the impunity of rapists

    FOR a window into rape culture, consider Flevian, 11, who said that her grandfather has been raping her almost daily since she was in the first grade.

    She's brilliant and, even as she lived with constant abuse and fear, alternated between first and second in her class of more than 100. Flevian said she could have done better if she hadn't been terrified of her grandfather's threats to cut her throat if she told anyone about the rapes.

    Yet, her family and community didn't seem to take the issue seriously, and the Kenyan police haven't taken sexual violence seriously.

    Once, when Flevian was about eight years old, the grandfather was caught abusing her. After much discussion, the extended family decided to "purify" Flevian with traditional herbs - and left it at that.

    Flevian's fate is common. The World Health Organisation estimated that 35 per cent of women worldwide have been sexually assaulted or subjected to domestic violence. In the Kibera slum here in Nairobi, where Flevian lives, many residents said that for a majority of women, their first sexual experience is rape.

    Rapes happen partly because women and girls are devalued and blamed. In India, a poll found that 68 per cent of judges believed that "provocative attire" amounts to "an invitation to rape".

    Yet, there is hope. Rape thrives when it is a taboo - considered too indelicate to discuss.

    Now, more and more women and men are speaking out, from India to Kenya to America. Here in Nairobi, there were public protests late last year after a group of young men who brutally gang-raped a 16-year-old girl were "punished" by being made to cut the grass at a police station.

    In an earlier column, I wrote about a grassroots organisation in Kibera, Shining Hope for Communities, that is tackling the sexual-violence epidemic. Now, it is handling several rape cases each week, pushing to get prosecutions in each one.

    One of Shining Hope's social workers, who is helping victims and their families get justice from the police, is Editar Adhiambo. She is an ebullient woman of 25 who said that she was raped at age six and again at 15 - and is determined to end the impunity.

    It was Editar and her colleagues at Shining Hope who received a tip about Flevian and rushed to help. Words can't capture the horror of that scene.

    Flevian is tiny and fragile, and she was in great pain after what she said was a particularly brutal rape. A social worker carried her to the police station.

    In a terrified whisper, she identified the rapist as her grandfather, and neighbours confirmed that they had known of the abuse for years.

    In this case, the system worked. The police agreed to arrest the grandfather. He insisted that he had never raped her, but the court later set bail for US$4,700 (S$6,000), an unusually high amount here. The arrest sent shock waves throughout the community because punishment for rape has been so rare.

    That may be changing. In the earlier column, I introduced Ida, a four-year-old Kenyan girl who had been raped by a neighbour. Ida's family made repeated visits to the Kilimani police station to seek justice, but the police kept "misplacing" documents and no arrest was made.

    Yet, eventually, as in Flevian's case, the police arrested the young man whom Ida and a neighbour eyewitness identified as the rapist. Yes, my presence may have played a role in the police turnabout, but the more sustainable intervention is the constant prodding by local activists from Shining Hope.

    The young man arrested gave his age as 12, although neighbours said they thought he was a few years older. He admitted to the rape.

    "This has had a big impact here," Rosemary, the neighbour who caught the boy during the rape, said of the arrest. "Parents are talking to their sons, telling them to be careful."

    That's a lesson for the world, including the United States. We need to erode the sense of male entitlement, build up female empowerment, end the taboos and, above all, end the impunity.