Rape! The silent scourge

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Rape is a threat that hangs over every woman’s head, not just in Kenya, but also worldwide, yet it is often spoken of in hushed tones. It takes a lot of effort and courage to try to change cultures that breed rape, and also educate people to understand that sexual violence in all its forms is abhorrent and must be prevented at all costs. ESTHER KIRAGU addresses this plague.

 Recently, there was a public outcry over how Kenya police handled the brutal gang rape incident of a young schoolgirl from Busia County whose identity was protected by the media under the name Liz. The story, brought to light by the local dailies, explained how Liz was accosted, beaten and raped by a group of six men while walking home from her grandfather’s funeral. The assailants later dumped the bleeding and unconscious teenager in a pit latrine, where she spent the night before being rescued by local residents.

Liz later identified three of the alleged rapists and police responded by arresting and ordering them to cut grass around the police station before setting them free. This unbefitting punishment warranted a public outcry. Liz suffered severe injuries from the incident and is confined to a wheelchair because of spinal injuries she suffered after being thrown in the 20ft deep pit latrine. Doctors have operated on her to repair some of her injuries including an obstetric fistula. This is a condition in which a fistula (hole) develops between either the rectum and vagina or between the bladder and vagina, causing stool and urine to leak.

 Liz’s is just one of many horrifying and chilling experiences of rape women go through. Rape involves sexual intercourse initiated by one or more persons against another person without their consent. It may be through physical force, coercion, abuse of authority or against a person who is incapable of valid consent, such as one who is unconscious, incapacitated, or below the legal age of consent. Rape is a crime and NEVER the victim’s fault.

When rape occurs…

While no one anticipates being a rape victim, it is important to be informed of this heinous crime and steps to take if it happens to you or someone close to you. Teresa Njore, psychologist, social worker and trauma counsellor at Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH) says that often people don’t even know how to help a rape victim. She advises that the best help to give a rape victim is to get them treatment and counseling immediately.

Teresa’s experience as a trauma counsellor is that parents and guardians whose children are victims of sexual abuse may not believe the children when they report the offence. This is because sexual abuse among children usually occurs within their own environment, with either family members or known persons being involved. Thus, children are often afraid to report such incidences for fear of not being believed.

“Rape brings trauma and may incapacitate the victim. In the case of children, they may stagnate, regress in their developmental milestones, perform poorly in school, become withdrawn and their total functioning as a holistic person may become distorted,” she says, adding that counseling helps the victim accept the ordeal, deal with it and move on with their life.

In 1974, American psychiatrist Ann Burgess and sociologist Lynda Holmstrom identified three stages of psychological trauma that a rape survivor goes through. The acute phase occurs immediately after the assault and usually lasts a few days to several weeks. Individuals may have many reactions including being agitated, hysterical, unemotional as if nothing happened and everything is fine, confusion, difficulty in concentrating, making decisions and doing everyday tasks, and also poor recall of the assault.

In the outward adjustment phase, the victim resumes her normal life but inside is suffering from considerable turmoil, while in the renormalisation stage, the survivor begins to recognise the impact of the rape, especially if she was in denial and also the secondary damage of any counterproductive coping tactics she may have used such as alcohol or drug abuse. Negative feelings such as guilt and shame also become resolved.

According to Julia Kagunda, a counseling psychologist based in Westlands in Nairobi, rape is often an issue of loss of self, as the victim feels devalued and traumatised. The victim can easily hate and doubt herself, have low-self esteem, feel violated, angry, and take blame for the ordeal. Counseling helps in dealing with the baggage that comes with rape,” she says, adding that for some victims, their sex life is affected, leading them to hate sex and struggle to stay in a marriage. For others, especially if a rape robbed them off their virginity, their view of sex may be affected.

No woman expects to be a victim of rape but incase it happens, you first need to get to a safe place if you can because you need to protect yourself irrespective of what has taken place. After this, call for help and if you cannot call the police, tell someone who can get you to the authorities.

It’s also important to seek medical help as soon as possible. Even if you don’t plan to take any legal action, you need to be examined by a doctor because sometimes the injuries attained in the incidence of a rape aren’t always immediately visible to you but a medical practitioner can identify them.

A doctor will also carry out an STD test and take necessary preventive measures. You will also be given the morning after pill if you are not on birth control to prevent pregnancy. A rape kit needs to be administered within 72 hours of the assault as biological proof of the attack and incase you were drugged during the ordeal, a urine sample will be taken to preserve evidence.

Do not change your clothes, comb your hair, take a shower, use the bathroom, if possible, or even change anything about yourself, until after a doctor has examined you. “The immediate instinct of anybody who is raped is to bathe and throw away the soiled clothing. Don’t do this, as doing so will result in loss of valuable evidence,” says Dr. Violet Okech-Helu, a consultant psychiatrist and counselor at KNH.

Victims of rape can seek refuge at several centres, which provide free specialised medical treatment and psychological support such as the Gender Violence Recovery Centre (GVRC) at the Nairobi Women’s Hospital, Moi Referral Hospital, Eldoret and KNH.

Alberta Wambua, the executive director at the Nairobi Women’s Hospital GVRC says that the role of the centre is to help bring back meaning to the survivor and their family by providing comprehensive and quality medical and psychosocial support. The centre doesn’t just focus on the victim alone but also on the family or the significant others in the life of the victim because rape also affects them and they equally need to provide a support system for the victim, which is part of dealing with the ordeal.

Alberta says that apart from responding to gender-based violence, the centre also creates awareness to build the capacity of service providers to offer accessible medical services to survivors at a health facility that is nearest to the survivor because effective treatment has to be within 72 hours of the assault in order to preserve evidence and also prevent HIV/Aids, pregnancy or any sexually transmitted infection such as hepatitis. Currently, the centre is running the 1 Million Fathers Campaign that focuses on creating a mass movement of men to join in the fight against gender-based violence.

According to a report by the Crime Scene Investigation (CSI) in Nairobi carried out between December 30, 2007 and June 30,2008, one out of 20 women in Kenya report when raped and only one in six seek medical assistance.

Dr. Okech-Helu, who has previously coordinated training, research, advocacy and outreach work at the KNH gender-based violence recovery centre, says that the hospital plays a key role in helping rape survivors deal with the physical and psychological aspects of rape through providing emergency medical care, counseling and collection of forensic evidence that links the perpetrator to the crime and a report that the police use in litigation. She further adds that the hospital attends to rape survivors almost every week and the impact is heart rending.

“Rape results in acute trauma and predisposes the victim to rape-related injuries especially on the reproductive system such as vaginal tears and fistulas which interfere with sexuality, self-esteem and childbirth. Untreated rape survivors are at great risk of developing mood and anxiety disorders and worsening pre-existing health disorders,” says Dr. Okech-Kelu.

“Some rape survivors feel dirty, unworthy and violated forever. Many develop phobia for sexual relations, which can lead to breakdown of marriage. Also, many survivors struggle with guilt, shame and self-blame but they shouldn’t. Instead they should seek counseling even if it is years later, so as to recover and rebuild their broken emotions and souls, ” she adds.

Applying the law…

Unconfirmed reports indicate an increase in the number of rape cases reported since the passage of the Sexual Offences Act in Kenya in 2006. This could be attributed to increase in awareness of the law with more Kenyans now informed of their rights and therefore reporting rape. There has also been a slight decline of the number of rape cases, possibly due to the introduction of stiffer penalties in the Sexual Offences Act.

The Act stipulates that a person convicted of committing rape faces a sentence of ten years to life imprisonment. In addition, a person convicted of defiling a child aged 11 years or younger can receive a life sentence, while someone who defiles a child aged 12 to 15 can receive at least 20 years in prison.

While the law imposes strict minimum sentences, it is not leading to enough arrests, prompting many to ask whether the law is effective in deterring rapists. This may also be due to poor handling of police investigations in rape cases that result in many offenders being set free and emboldened to rape again. A considerable number of members of the police force lack training on management of gender-based crimes and skills to handle victims of sexual violence, which is why some of them have been accused of treating sexual offences casually.

Even so, the police sometimes face obstacles that impede rape investigations, such as lack of co-operation from the community and interference from elders, who often try to deal with the incidence ‘amicably’. Rape cases in many counties are usually settled through ‘out of court’ agreements or through clan elders who are usually men, while women and children in rural areas are subjected to these kangaroo courts yet they are, by and large, the victims when it comes to rape.

Although Kenya has a strong constitution protecting its citizens from violence and impressive gender laws that promise protection from assault, implementation seems to be the biggest impediment in winning the war against sexual violence. In helping win the war against rape, the government should prioritize ending sexual violence by putting into action policies that ensure women and girls are protected, increase resources allocated to gender-specific programmes, particularly those that address gender-based violence, and also ensure that sexual violence survivors get justice.

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