At Last, Liz Can Exhale

I breathed a sigh of relief on Monday when I heard the outcome of a case that has haunted me and others for nearly two years. A court in Nairobi sentenced three men involved in the case of Liz,* a woman who was gang-raped by six men in June 2013. Finally, three of the rapists were convicted for up to 22 years,15 years for rape and seven years for causing her grievous bodily harm. While the jail term handed down to the three perpetrators is rather lenient—in a country where rape can attract a maximum sentence of life imprisonment—at least they were tried and found guilty. Immediately after the rape, the police had not even arrested the perpetrators; they thought it was punishment enough to have them cut the grass around the police station. It’s only because of public outcry and a campaign called “Justice for Liz” that these men were tried.

What happened to Liz was a gang rape of brutal proportions. She was viciously attacked on her way home from her grandfather’s funeral in western Kenya and afterwards left in an open sewer. As a result of the attack, she suffered an obstetric fistula and a spinal injury forcing her to use a wheelchair. While she was able to identify three of the rapists, the three remaining rapists are still at large. A day after the sentence was announced the Director of Public Prosecution, Keriako Tobiko, issued a statement indicating that the sentence given was indeed lenient and that his office was calling for it to be increased.

This sentence and other unfolding events related to this case reminded me of when I first sat with Liz in the hospital in Eldoret. Back then I was the Executive Director of the Coalition on Violence Against Women (COVAW) and was among the activists in Kenya who organized various actions to remind the police of their duty to prevent and respond to sexual violence. I remember sharing a bar of chocolate with Liz in the hope it would make her feel better. I love chocolate and I am a true believer that it gives you a temporal feel-good moment. For just that moment when it melts in your mouth the rest of world and its problems melt away.

But back then I knew—as much as Liz and her mother knew—that no amount of chocolate would make Liz feel better. The experience of being gang raped by six men had changed her life forever. Today, though I am miles away from Kenya, I imagine her beautiful smile and think of what a hero she is to the millions of rape survivors who have not had half the support she received from her family and the courage she has demonstrated. I hope that this serves to encourage more families to stand firm with their daughters when they report being sexually violated.

Liz’s case is a classic example of the government’s failure to exercise due diligence when dealing with sexual violence. It comes as a deep relief that a sentence that finds the three perpetrators guilty has been passed at last. It’s a sign that women and girls in Kenya can access and realize justice, giving a gentle nudge to women and girls to break the silence and report cases of sexual violence. Much more still needs to be done to get the police to step up and ensure protection of women and girls. And while the independence of the judiciary is to be commended, giving tougher sentences is an important deterrent in the fight to end violence against women and girls.

A vital—and often missing—aspect of the government’s response to survivors of sexual violence is providing psychosocial support and other post-rape care services, including access to sexual and reproductive health care, especially services such as emergency contraception and safe abortion. The “Justice for Liz” campaign ignited a national debate on state accountability and impunity for acts of violence against women and girls. Perpetrators of sexual violence must be held accountable, but so too must the state.

This case reminds us all that addressing impunity may be the linchpin in the struggle to end violence against women and girls. Much more work is needed to prevent the type of attack Liz suffered, to support survivors, and to punish offenders to the full extent of the law. But at least we have a positive step in the right direction. As I breathed a sigh of relief Monday, I imagined Liz exhaling at last, calmly acknowledging that her fight for justice was not in vain.

* Liz is a pseudonym, to protect her identity.

Photo: Terry Kunina/COVAW

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