Mariam Mohammed cradles her baby and draws nervously in the red sand with a twig as she recalls what happened to her. She was 15 when her uncle raped her in the family hut in Wajir, northeastern Kenya.
She says, “He told me to make the bed, he gripped my throat so I couldn’t scream, and then he hurt me.”
Her mother, Fatouma Mohammed, found out about her daughter’s ordeal when it became too difficult to hide her pregnancy. She immediately informed the elders in their pastoralist village.
Her eyes full of anger, Fatouma Mohammed recalls, “They did nothing, and suggested Mariam just marry her uncle…. So I decided to leave and take my children back to my mother’s.”
Stories like Mariam’s are common. Often, girls from pastoralist communities must watch domestic animals instead of going to school. They also walk long distances to fetch water, making them easy targets for potential abusers.
Development workers in the area say prolonged drought is making matters worse in the region, which is home to many ethnic Somali families.
Suli Abdi Buhad is the gender team leader at Mercy Corps, a humanitarian aid agency. She says, “Somali pastoralists are extremely proud. If they lose their animals, they are no one…. That leaves them unoccupied, even depressed, and can turn many into violent men.”
Ms. Abdi Buhad is part of a group of women and men—community members, police officers, journalists, health workers, and NGO workers, among others—who last year set up a gender support desk and hotline in Wajir for victims of violence.
Once a girl calls the toll-free number, the group alerts a local colleague or police officer, who investigates the accusation and provides the victim with moral and medical support.
If the allegation is substantiated and the victim is willing to come forward, the gender desk helps her bring the case to court.
The initiative is part of a UK-funded program called BRACED, led by Mercy Corps.
Ubah Adan is director of the county department of gender, social and cultural services, and is a member of the group. She explains that cases of rape and sexual assault in Wajir are often settled by religious leaders according to a traditional form of Islamic law called maslaha. Usually, the settlement involves compensation for the victim’s family.
Ms. Adan explains, “They [elders] will order the culprit’s clan to give the victim’s family 100 camels, as punishment, which never go to the victim anyway.”
She adds that, of the few cases that do make it to court, about one in three is dismissed due to a lack of evidence or the victim retracting her accusation.
Mariam Mohammed’s case is now being tried before a Wajir court, thanks to support from the gender group. But her mother, Fatouma Mohammed, says her brother-in-law’s family routinely threatens both of them.
But, she says, “We won’t give up.”
The gender desk’s efforts are starting to bear fruit. Ms. Adan says that from June 2016 to June 2017, nine cases of violence against women and girls went to court. All of them resulted in jail sentences. In 2015, she says, only two cases ended in jail sentences.
In addition to seeking justice for victims of violence, the gender desk aims to shift traditional, patriarchal attitudes toward women and girls.
Ms. Abdi Buhad says the group identifies “gender champions” and asks them to speak out against violence on local radio, and to promote gender equality.
She laughs, adding, “We want them to tell other men that it’s okay to change your baby’s nappy or cook for your wife.”
She wants men to adopt a different attitude, similar to what she calls women’s “fighting spirit.”
She explains: “If a man loses his animals, it’s the end of the world…. But if the same thing happens to a woman, she’ll just make tea and chapatis, sell them at the market. and come back with the money.”
Diyad Hujale is program coordinator at Mercy Corps. He says worsening drought has exacerbated already high levels of violence against women and girls. He adds, “[Recent] drought has been particularly bad, causing pastoralists from Wajir to move to the north of the county—where there is more rain—and fueling conflict for land and water.”
He adds that girls and women are often caught in the middle of disputes.
He says, “Some pastoralists think that if you want to send a political message, to threaten another clan, you rape a girl.” In some cases, girls are killed.
He hopes that laying criminal charges against one person—rather than allowing responsibility for the violence to be attributed to an entire clan—will reduce the escalation of violence among groups, and the intimidation of victims that often follows.
Ms. Adan says one of the biggest challenges facing the group is a lack of funds. The group wants to build a much-needed shelter for victims of sexual violence, who she says are often rejected by their own families.
For now, many victims are still waiting for justice. Mariam’s case is ongoing, pending a DNA test that would prove her uncle is her baby’s father.
The test costs more than 20,000 Kenyan shillings (about US$195) and needs to be done in Nairobi, the capital, more than 600 kilometres from Wajir.
Fatouma Mohammed squeezes her daughter’s hand and says, “That’s too expensive, and too far.”
Mariam, who now refuses to venture outside her home alone, says she “almost wants him [her uncle] to be exonerated, so we can try to forget about all of this.”
She pauses, and adds, “Even though I know I will never forget.”
This story was adapted from an article titled, “Hotline, ‘gender champions’ tackle violence against girls in drought-hit Kenya” published by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. To read the original article, please see: http://news.trust.org/item/20170621001240-eynkk/
Photo: Pastoralists in Tanzania