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  • Writer's pictureIrungu Houghton

Never be silent in the vicinity of violence

The recent raid on Usikimye safe house and the arrest of Njeri Migwi brings into sharp focus how little we really doing to expand sanctuary spaces for gender-based survivors. That the action happened two days after annual global campaign Sixteen Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence began is even more alarming.

On Friday 27 November 2020, twelve officers travelled 25 kilometers from Buru Buru Police Station to raid a safe house dedicated to protecting victims of Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV) in Kiambu. Recently established on the eve of COVID-19, the safe house is run by women-rights’ activist and Usikimye Director Njeri Migwi. Since February, the safe house has served over a hundred battered and abused women and girls largely based on public donations.

The police officers were searching for a woman who we shall just call Binti Shupavu. Binti and her kids, according to her husband, had been missing for days. In the company of the woman’s husband, the officers proceeded to arrest the “house-mum” when they did not find his wife. This incident left other survivors in need of psychosocial counselling. Late Friday night at the station, the officers accused both the house-mum and Njeri Migwe of “breaking up families”. It took the intervention of Amnesty international Kenya to ensure the two protectors were not prosecuted, the wife’s statement was taken within the presence of the Independent Policing Oversight Authority and the police were finally set straight on what was really happening.

Binti is one of thousands of women, men and children who have been assaulted by intimate partners during this COVID-19 period. The incident must cause us to rethink the speed at which national and county governments are creating safe spaces for victims of violence.

Before the National Council on the Administration of Justice declared a silent second pandemic of violence during COVID-19, women’s rights organisations like FIDA, CREAW, Equality Now and others had raised the alarm. Government research shows that as the virus spiked in April, so did household and community violence. Forty-five per cent of people between the age of 15-49 had experienced physical violence. Fourteen per cent of them had also suffered sexual violence, rape or defilement. The Government’s public health safety guidance for Kenyans to “Stay at Home” had literally become a “Stay in Hell directive.

Despite this years’ Presidential Executive Order, the nation has only a handful of safe houses, shelters and recovery centers. Most of them are run by citizens and civic organisations. Championed by Deputy Governor Adelina Mwau, the Makueni County Government became the first to listen to what children and women wanted and have now established a safe house with separate wings for men and women. Kisumu and Nandi could be next. Both have advanced plans towards policy guidelines, physical buildings and services.

A word of caution for other county governments, buildings without services are merely shells, not shelters. To be a shelter, furniture, medical, counselling, legal, livelihoods and protection specialists are required within those walls. As the nation reflects on the performance of women representatives, shelters in every county seems an easy issue for them and male legislators to champion for.

Given high levels of violence, safe houses and recovery centers must be considered as essential services. Both the national government and the remaining 44 county governments must now focus on this. National and county policies, laws, budgets and guidelines for places of safety are needed now. Police-officers who raid and violate safe-houses in the company of alleged abusers must be sanctioned. Station commanding officers must have protocols on how to approach safe houses especially, if they are over 25 kilometers from their jurisdiction.

The Gender Ministry must find those draft national guidelines on safe houses, review, complete and place them before our legislators. A percentage of all COVID-19 recovery funds must go to legal aid, well-being counselling and medical support for victims of violence. Both international and national government funding should be allocated to civic organisations providing these services. Without increased funding, the quality, quantity and sustainability of shelters and safe houses will never be guaranteed.

Until that happens, the Presidential Executive Order will remain good on paper, but without follow up, merely vapor. Yesterday I called the national helpline 1195 to see if it works. It does. As citizens, we should make sure every adult and child know this number in the case they need to use it. Like the name Usikimye suggests, may we never be silent in the vicinity of violence.

This opinion was also published in the Saturday Standard, 5 December 2020.


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