Kenya rape protests
Protesters use underwear to decry the pathetic punishment of the Tingolo rapists [].

In Kenya, the impunity of rapists and the failure of the justice system to convict them was demonstrated in damning clarity by the case of a 16-year-old schoolgirl who was gang raped in the small village of Tingolo. Not only did police fail to investigate the reported case, they also refused to prosecute three identified suspects.

Post-rape medical diagnostics reports revealed the victim, known only as Liz, suffered serious spinal injury in the attack and was confined to a wheelchair, having developed obstetric fistula characterised by leaking urine and stool. Clamped to her wheelchair in hospital, she recounted her ordeal to a news reporter days later the assault.

Liz was walking home at night from her grandfather's funeral when six boys aged 17 and 18 accosted her, beat her up and gang raped her. When the boys realised Liz was bleeding and unconscious, and in an effort to conceal their heinous act they dumped her deep in a 20-foot unused sewage ditch near the crime scene. She was rescued next day from the latrine by nearby villagers.

Despite her fatigue and torture, Liz remembered the attackers' voices, faces and gaits - all the attackers were village boys she knew too well. She listed their names and described their homes to the villagers, who, shocked and outraged, apprehended three of the boys themselves and took them to the police station, where Liz also reported her case.

Instead of investigating Liz's case and prosecuting the accused boys, the police ordered the offenders to cut grass around inside the police station for just a few hours before releasing them to continue their normal lives in the village and even taunt their victim. Liz, together with her poor mum, was denied justice and abandoned to wallow in agony and suffer a terrible crime that changed her life forever.

Kenyan newspaper The Daily Nation reported the ferocious attack and details surrounding the lawn mowing chore. The glaring inadequacy of the grass-cutting punishment appalled many human rights activists and advocacy groups. In a country that is increasingly internet-savvy and middle class, Kenyans used Twitter and Facebook to bring media attention to the case.

Kenyan Media

The Kenyan media, backed by online support, created a collective voice and action that called for justice in Liz's case, demanding the rapists be arrested and police face disciplinary action for failing to investigate the case and meting out a pathetic punishment.

Media reports showed incompetence in police implementation of the government's international human rights obligations and national anti-rape legislation. Journalist highlighted police failures to provide effective protection of rape victims, conduct immediate investigations of reported cases and prosecute rapists effectively.

The case has since come to local and global attention. Kenyan human rights activist Nebila Abdulmelik wrote an Avaaz online petition demanding justice for Liz, garnering 1.3 million signatures around the world. Within Kenya, The Nation Media Group offered to meet the teenager's medical costs, which were initially projected at nearly $7,000. The group also initiated a justice campaign that promoted donations to go toward Liz's medical bills and legal fees, with hundreds of ordinary Kenyans making substantial donations.

The media interest surrounding Liz's case has had a positive impact on advocacy and activism surrounding women's rights in Kenya. Yet much, much more needs to be done to deal with the wider problem of gender violence and inequality,

Incidents of rape are on the rise across the country, according to a Kenya Police Crime Report published in June. The statistics reported 338 rapes between January and May 2013, up from 332 in the first five months of 2012 and 297 during the same period in 2011. Rights groups such as the Coalition on Violence Against Women claim the numbers are likely much higher because many cases go unreported.

A 2012 national survey of children revealed that 32 per cent of females and 18 percent of males have experienced sexual violence. Furthermore, Kenya's Gender Minister Naomi Shaban told the UN in March 2013 that the national prevalence of Female Genital Mutilation stood at 27.1 per cent. Recently, the Coalition on Violence Against Women estimated that one in every three women in Kenya will be a victim of sexual- and gender-based violence in their lifetimes.

Major Change

Yet the Liz case could represent something of a watershed in the fight against rape in Kenya, and internationally. In the recent campaign march demanding justice for Liz's case in Nairobi, several men joined the march. Male involvement in the fight for women's rights in Africa is steadily growing and male groups are gradually being formed globally to champion the rights of women.

One significant group is the 'million fathers' campaign launched in July 2012, as part of the UN Secretary-General's Africa UNiTE Campaign to end violence against women and girls. With rising male advocacy for gender equality, media and public reaction to Liz's case may lead to a major legal and cultural change regarding sexual inequality in Kenya.

Pro-women's right commentaries made recently by Kenyan policymakers and government officials in light of the Liz case provide hopeful signs suggesting that the introduction of new legislation and increased local responsibility could help in promoting women and girl's rights. In one commentary, Honourable Asman Kimama, chairman of the Kenyan Parliament's committee on National Security introduced the issue in the committee for investigation and debate how to increasingly protect the over ten million Kenyan women and girls from gender violence.

In a major push, Kenya's Chief Justice Willy Mutunga requested the National Council for the Administration of Justice, Kenya's top-level judicial oversight body, to introduce new legislation, arrest the alleged rapists immediately, investigate the matter urgently and prosecute the assailants effectively.

Matching words with action, the Attorney General immediately submitted a bill to the National Assembly. If passed, the bill will recognize that domestic violence in all forms is unacceptable behaviour and would clamp down on "21 forms of violence." But, the bill does not assign punishments per se but instead has them meted out by local courts under pre-existing assault and rape statutes.

Kenya still has a way to go. The legal protection offered to women subjected to sexual violence remains inadequate, and those who commit violence against women continue to operate with impunity. Yet in this evolving democracy, the development of human rights protection through partnerships, legislation and implementation, the introduction of helplines, legal aid clinics and police gender desks, could one day rid Kenya of its sexual violence problem.

Hubert Foy is a Key Consultant at Consultancy Africa, which provides expert research and analysis on the African continent. Visit the website for more information.