The gang-rape of a 16-year-old Kenyan schoolgirl — and the lack of punishment given to the alleged rapists — has sparked outrage in the country and beyond.
The attack was so violent it left the girl in a wheelchair with severe back injury. She identified some of her attackers, who police apprehended — only to let go after they were ordered to cut the lawn at the police station.
Several hundred marchers stopped traffic on Nairobi’s Central Kenyatta Street Thursday morning carrying cardboard boxes representing the more than 1.2 million online signatures on a petition called “Justice for Liz.” Liz is a pseudonym for the girl in the case, who lives in Busia County, Kenya.
Ngozi Nwosu, an activist from Nigeria joining the march, says she was struck by how many Kenyan men were marching with them.
“There are men joining women to speak against rape,” she says. “In Nigeria women are most likely [to] stand alone. Kenya is doing well in terms of standing up against injustice.”
In Kenya, where most rapes go unnoticed and unreported, this case has struck a chord.
Nebila Abdulmelik wrote the petition in those cardboard boxes calling for the rapists to be arrested and the police officers disciplined.
“I think everything about this case was so outrageous,” she says.
‘Emboldens Others To Also Rape’
On June 24, “Liz” was walking home from her grandfather’s funeral, when she was ambushed by six men, one age 17, the others 18.
She was beaten, and gang-raped and dumped in a pit latrine
But when she identified three of her attackers to the police, their only punishment was to cut grass around the police station.
That, says Abdulmelik, “emboldens others to also rape.”
The case lay idle for months — Liz’s mom had to lease the family farm to afford the hospital. Then a newspaper reporter picked up the story, and the activism that followed showcased a Kenya that is increasingly wired and middle class. Kenyans used Twitter and Facebook to bring media attention to the case, and mobile money transfer campaigns to raise thousands of dollars from ordinary Kenyans for her care.
Doctors say that Liz, currently in a wheelchair, will be able to walk again next month, thanks to back surgery.
That’s not enough, though, says Saida Ali, executive director of the Kenya-based Coalition on Violence Against Women.
“What we are demanding for is justice,” she says.
“So it’s very good that people step in and give money; however, the police still need to make an arrest. The prosecution and eventual punishment need to happen,” she says.
A Potential Clash Of Two Kenyas
Ali paints a picture of two Kenyas: one where enough people have the education and means to help a girl like Liz, and the other that is rife with corrupt institutions that she says are shielding the perpetrators.
Kenya has very strict sexual violence laws on the books. Another marcher, Ruth Ojiambo Ocheing, is executive director of Isis Wicce in Uganda. She says these kinds of laws, pushed by Western governments, are on the books in many African countries. But they mean nothing.
“They have now known that the West believes so much in those laws, so it’s very easy for us to go and do all the signing, but it stops on the shelves,” she says.
On Thursday, marchers tried to take those laws off the shelves with a dose of public shame. They hanged placards and underwear on the spiked metal gates of the police headquarters. The police inspector general’s chief of staff, William Thwere, came to the gates to take the petition. He said they were searching for the perpetrators, who had gone into hiding. And he promised to discipline police officers if they were found to have committed wrongdoing.
But Saida Ali of the Coalition on Violence Against Women says the longer this investigation drags on, the more she fears some police in Busia County could try to pressure Liz to recant her story
“It raises concerns around security, for Liz, and her mother, and intimidation can take different forms,” she says.
Her biggest fear is a clash of those two Kenyas: in which a brazen public protest in Nairobi puts Liz and her mother in rural Kenya in real danger.