Little Voices, Big Message
In Kenya, a chorus of GIRLS speaks out against rape.
(Excerpts from featured story in ELLE Canada and ellecanada.com, March 2014)
In September, 2013, I travelled to Meru, Kenya to document this community's efforts to challenge the impunity that surrounds sexual violence against children. Earlier this Spring, with the support of the Equality Effect, a non-profit organization whose team of experienced volunteer Canadian and African lawyers, the community won a landmark victory: the High Court of Kenya found that police failure to enforce existing rape laws and to protect girls from rape violated domestic, regional and human-rights laws. Now the real work begins: to ensure this unprecedented legal victory leads to a change in outcome victims of rape. Only then will we know that the system works.
“Sexual trauma is very difficult to erase in the life of a child. If you take a piece of paper and tear it into small pieces, you can glue it together, you can try to stitch it together, you can even try to iron it. But it can never be the same.”
Mercy Chidi, executive director of a rape shelter in Meru, Kenya.
A girl plays at the Brenda Boone Hope Center, a rescue centre for young rape victims managed by non-profit Ripples International, in Meru, Kenya. In Kenya, 32 percent of the 18- to 24-year-old women surveyed in a 2010 UNICEF-funded study said that they had been victims of sexual violence as children, and 78 percent of rape cases reported to police involve children, says a 2012 Kenya Police crime report.
"Somebody grabbed me from nowhere and took me to his place" explains a thirteen-year old victim who was eleven when she was raped on her way home from her grandmother's house. "I couldn't wake up or walk" after the assault, she adds. Despite being threatened with death by the perpetrator if she spoke up, she filed a claim with the police. The perpetrator was released for lack of evidence, "So he is free," she concludes. For her safety, she attends boarding school with support from Ripples and private donors.
A female security guard records the arrival of a new rape victim at Ripples.
Teen victims of rape care for their babies at "Ripples" (also referred to as the Brenda Boone Hope Center.) A reported 7% of females aged 13 to 17 became pregnant as a result of unwanted completed sex, according to the 2010 UNICEF-funded study in Kenya.
It is scarcely one week after the Westgate Mall terrorist attack in Kenya's capital, Nairobi, and security is tight at the local stadium in Meru, some 200 km north. Today a marathon is being held to raise awareness about sexual violence against children and educate the community about the importance of enforcing rape laws.
Nearing the finish line of a 5-kilometer event during the marathon, a young woman passes a banner developed by the Toronto office of advertising firm BBDO.
A billboard in Meru that is part of a public awareness campaign, developed pro bono by the Toronto office of BBDO Advertising, intended to stigmatize rape and chip away at deeply held social and cultural patterns of conduct.
“What is being done in Meru is not being done anywhere else in the world,” says Paul Higdon, an American executive who chairs the Ripples International board . “The Meru community has had the courage to face their demons, to face the shame. These things exist all over the world, but this community has had the courage and integrity to put it out in the open and talk about it. And it will end.”
A victim tends to a vegetable garden in Meru. When she was twelve, she was raped by a stranger while gathering firewood. “He told me to remove my clothes. Then he removed his clothes. He slept over me.” The perpetrator was never charged due to lack of evidence. “Before I was defiled I lived without fear. But now I live in fear because I usually hear that the person is still around.”