• Women’s Agency and Violence against Women: The Case of the Coalition on Violence Against Women in Kenya

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    ABSTRACT: Violence against women and girls has been acknowledged as a violation of basic human rights and a form of discrimination against women, reflecting the prevalent imbalance of power between women and men. This is because violence against women and girls is a universal phenomenon that is both a cause and consequence of gender inequality. Hence, many legal and policy frameworks have identified violence against women as one of the critical areas of concern that requires women’s agency. This paper analyzes the use of women’s agency to curb violence against women and girls in Kenya using the case study of the Coalition on Violence Against Women (COVAW). It specifically examines the problem of violence against women and girls and how women, through organization such as COVAW, are using their agency to prevent and address that violence. The case study of COVAW is used to provide in-depth analysis of how this women’s organization represents women’s agency in addressing violence against women and girls in Kenyan society. It also illustrates that women have the capacity and ability to combat violence in their society.

    KEYWORDS: Sexual and gender-based violence, women’s agency, women’s organizations, Coalition on Violence Against Women (COVAW), Kenya

    African Conflict & Peacebuilding Review 7, no. 1 (Spring 2017), 51–65 Copyright © The Trustees of Indiana University • doi: 10.2979/africonfpeacrevi.7.1.04


    The magnitude of violence against women and girls, particularly physical, psychological, sexual, and gender-based violence, in Kenya is disturbing and on the rise. Women are often the main victims of violence because of the patriarchal system in Kenya (Kariuki, Chatterjee, and Dejak 2016). Despite the existence of legislation, administrative directives, judicial sanctions, and awareness-raising efforts by a variety of organizations and the government, gender-based violence, including domestic and sexual violence, human trafficking, and harmful practices, such as forced child marriage and Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), is still endemic in Kenya. According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) report of 2014, 47% of women between the ages of fifteen and forty-nine reported that they have experienced either physical or sexual violence. Thirty-three percent have experienced physical violence only, 3% have experienced sexual violence only, and 12% have experienced both physical and sexual violence. The percentage of women who have experienced physical or sexual violence increases steadily with age, from 35% among those aged fifteen to nineteen to 54% among those aged forty to forty-nine (KNBS 2014: 302).

    Moreover, the Kenya Police Service received 3,596 defilement cases, 913 of rape, 242 of incest, and 124 of sodomy in 2013 (Orlale 2015). Also, the 2013–14 Liverpool Voluntary Counseling and Testing (LVCT) Health report cites 5,143 cases of gender-based violence (GBV) from 131 sites across Kenya. Out of these, the most affected are girls between twelve and seventeen, representing 41% of survivors, followed by women aged eighteen to forty-nine, who make up 32%. Additionally, girls and women living with disabilities have not been spared by perpetrators of GBV. Girls represented 1% of the cases of GBV, while women over fifty accounted for 3%. Shockingly, girls younger than eleven accounted for 24% of GBV survivors in 2013 (Orlale 2015). One of the worst cases of defilement was of a 10-year-old girl who went on to give birth in Kericho County through caesarean section. The girl suffered double tragedy when media contravened the Children’s Act by revealing her name, school of attendance, and image, leading to psychological torture, stigma, and depression (Orlale 2015).

    According to Odhiambo Orlale (2015), the worst regions as far as physical violence against women is concerned are Western and Nyanza counties, which account for 51.6% and 49.5%, respectively, followed closely by Nairobi (46.1%) and Eastern (40.6%) counties. The rates of physical violence against women for the other areas are the following: Central, 32.8%; Rift Valley, 32.4%; Coast, 27.4%; and the lowest is North Eastern, 12.1% (Orlale 2015). Orlale notes that with regard to sexual violence against women, the pattern is similar: Western and Nyanza counties are at the top with 25.3% and 19.4%; Nairobi, 21.8%; Eastern, 12.9%; Rift Valley, 9.7%; Coast, 9.1%; Central, 8.7%; and North Eastern, 0.4 %. Orlale reports that 72.6% of survivors of GBV were unwilling to pursue justice; while only 5% who were seen in health facilities in 2014 were willing to go to court, owing to insensitivity of law enforcement. The report notes that the victim protection system is weak and worsened by high levels of legal illiteracy in the country, especially among GBV survivors (Orlale 2015).

    Women in Africa choose to engage in issues that are of immediate and direct significance to their daily lives. This enables them to make positive transformational social change or to better the circumstances of their lives and sometimes both. In their endeavor for peace, women are known for organizing themselves based on their gender interests, which may be practical or strategic. In many African countries, women in rural areas mobilize themselves based on practical interest, which in most cases is aimed at resolving basic needs problems. On the other hand, women in big cities or urban areas organize themselves based on strategic interest, to gain access to the social and political sphere, such as in education and politics.

    Moreover, women continue to agitate for change through various platforms, including the formation of organized societies and political movements. One such example is the Maendeleo ya Wanawake Organization (MYWO) in Kenya, which was formed in 1952 as a national and non-profit body that has been instrumental in promoting the empowerment of women, especially in the education and training sector. It has been working throughout Kenya with women at all levels of society. They include women at the grassroots and at the policy level. MYWO believes in changing the attitudes of women about themselves and their prospects and in inculcating positive views about women in society. As an organization that promotes women’s agency, MYWO was the first to use community-based distribution methods (CBDs) of contraceptives. It was also the first to advocate for the eradication of FGM through alternative rites of passage. It has also been involved in girl-child and civic education, advocacy for gender equity, elimination of harmful traditional practices to women’s health, female leadership development, and the promotion of home-based care for people living with HIV/AIDS.

    Another example of women’s organizations in Kenya is the Coalition on Violence Against Women Organization (COVAW). COVAW was founded in 1995 as a response to the silence of Kenyan society on issues of violence against women and girls (COVAW 2016). COVAW’s origin is traced to a workshop organized by Women in Law and Development in Africa (WiLDAF), which identified two critical areas that no organization was dealing with: a) violence against women and girls and b) the lack of women in decision-making processes. The workshop underscored the need to form a coalition that would address these problems. Based on the workshop deliberations, COVAW, which is now a registered non-profit organization in Kenya, was formed in 1995 by some of the participants.

    Women are known for coming together to improve their condition in society because they have the same problems and uncertainties (Ferree and Mueller 2002). However, violence against women and girls remains a major problem in Kenya, and there is still much to be done to curtail this menace because the experience of violence affects women and girls in ways that are often difficult to quantify. Given the magnitude of the problem of violence against women and the formidable work of women’s organizations to combat the problem, the important issue of women’s agency needs to be addressed. This paper adds to our understating of these issues by specifically examining the problem of violence against women and girls through the lens of COVAW. By examining COVAW’s work, the paper simultaneously takes on both the issue of violence against women and women’s agency. COVAW was chosen because of its uniqueness as an organization that is predominantly dedicated to eradicating violence against women and girls in Kenyan society. Moreover, COVAW has gained a significant level of prominence in the country.


    Violence against women and girls has been addressed in both the policy and scholarly domains. While many scholarly works focus on understanding the nature, cause, and effects, a key part of policy work centers on setting the legal instruments for combating the violence. Article 1 of the 1993 United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (DEVAW) defines violence against women as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life” (United Nations 1993). Article 2 of DEVAW identifies three areas where violence against women occurs, namely, a) the family, b) the community, and c) the state. Within the family, violence against women includes physical, sexual, and psychological violence, wife battering, sexual abuse of female children in the household, dowry-related violence, marital rape, female genital mutilation and other traditional practices harmful to women, non-spousal violence, and violence related to exploitation. At the community level, violence can include rape, sexual abuse, sexual harassment and intimidation at work and education institutions, trafficking in women, and forced prostitution. State-level violence includes physical, sexual, and psychological violence perpetrated or condoned by state and non-state actors, especially in war situations.

    In the case of Kenya, most of the incidences of violence against women and girls occurs within the family and the community where perpetrators are close acquaintances of the victims. It is also important to note that violence at the family and community level is condoned by the state due to its lack of effective prosecution of gender-based crimes. One common form of state-level violence against women in Kenya is sexual violence, which often occurs in the context of other forms of violations against women, such as extra-judicial killing, serious injury, torture, and forced displacement. The 2013 report of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) noted that sexual violence was the most common type of violence that women in Kenya experienced. In 2005 alone, COVAW received reports of over 750 cases of sexual violence (TJRC 2013). The types of sexual violations reported to the TJRC include mass rapes (rape of many women in a community at the same time), gang rape (rape of women by more than two men at the same time), sodomy, mutilation of male and female genitals, castration, forced circumcision of both men and women, sexual torture, and penetration of women’s sexual organs by harmful objects (TJRC 2013: 713).

    Kenya is party to various regional and international gender instruments that demonstrate the government’s commitment to attaining gender equity and equality. These instruments include the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the Beijing Platform for Action, the African Union (AU) Heads of Stats Solemn Declaration on Gender Equality in Africa, and the Optional Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa. Also, the 2010 Constitution of Kenya under the Bill of Rights (Chapter 4) recognizes the rights and fundamental freedom of all citizens and guarantees equality and freedom from discrimination on any grounds, including sex. Furthermore, Article 27 in the Bill of Rights stipulates that women and men have the right to equal treatment, including the right to equal opportunities in political, economic, cultural, and social spheres. Other national legal frameworks include the Sexual Offences Act (2006), Employment Act (2007), Prohibition of FGM Act (2011), the Counter Trafficking in Persons Act (2010), the Protection Against Domestic Violence Act, Gazettement of Sexual Offences Medical Treatment Regulations and Post Rape Care (PRC) Form, and the Victims Protection Act.

    The Government of Kenya has also established various institutions with specific mandates to promote gender equality and equity and empowerment of women and men in the development process. These include the Directorate of Gender in the Ministry of Devolution and Planning, National Gender and Equality Commission (NGEC), Kenya National Human Rights Commission (KNHRC), and the Anti-Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) Board. Gender equality and empowerment of women is a priority in Kenyan development policies, such as Vision 2030 and the Second Medium Term Plan. Some of the gender policies are implemented through special funds at the Ministry of Devolution and Planning, such as the Women Enterprise Fund (WEF), Youth Enterprise Development Fund (YEDF), Uwezo Fund, and the ear-marking of 30% of total government procurement to Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities. As a government policy, the performance contracts for all ministries, departments, and agencies have to incorporate gender mainstreaming targets (Nairobi City Council County Health Services 2017: ii). The impact of all these efforts is that organizations, such as COVAW, working to reduce violence against women have a legal definition and references that are enshrined in the national, regional, and international legal and policies frameworks. If all these laws and policies are well-implemented by the government, then violence against women and girls would have been eradicated. Unfortunately, that has not yet fully materialized, which creates a real need for women’s organizations such as COVAW.

    According to Francis Onditi and Josephine Odera (2016: 4), in most parts of Africa, women are economically, culturally, socially, and politically disadvantaged. They claim that due to institutional weakness, exclusion, and other barriers, women cannot enjoy their rights in accessing opportunities, decision-making processes, and basic services. Therefore, women are socialized to believe that men are superior and the violence inflicted upon them is a way of correcting their weaknesses. Such views about male superiority increase the rate at which violence is perpetuated against women, who in turn suffer in silence. Another problem is that women and girls are often not informed about their rights, which often leads to the acceptance and normalization of the violence perpetrated against them and the culture of violence and impunity. Too often violence against women is reduced to mere interpersonal crime within families or between strangers (Ahmed 2010: 128).

    Susana Fried (2003: 91) notes that violence and the threat of violence terrorizes many women and keeps them from freely and wholly contributing to the social, economic, and political development of their communities. She further states that violence hinders all women’s abilities to exercise their human rights, and it circumscribes their capacity to function as full citizens in their society. Gender-based violence (GBV) cuts across race, class, religion, age, ethnicity, sexuality, culture, and geographic region (Fried 2003: 91).

    In Kenya, social and cultural norms continue to undermine ongoing legal and administrative efforts to promote gender equality and reduce violence against women. According to COVAW (2017), the patriarchal nature of Kenyan society is the underlying reason for violence again women. Too often, men are believed to be superior to women. Also, many customs continue to oppress women’s freedoms, especially in rural areas. Traditional norms often link a woman’s sexuality to her honor and emphasize the need to ensure chastity, including through the use of FGM. In some Kuria and Teso communities, for example, it is taboo to discuss sexual matters (including sexual violations). Even when there are opportunities to speak out about violations, women in those communities often use alternative expressions to explain attacks against them (TJRC 2013). In Kwale County, marriages are arranged for girls at a young age, which has resulted in numerous cases of early marriages, early pregnancy, and forced marriages (Chimbi 2016). In Kajiado County, particularly among the Maasai communities, FGM is openly practiced even though it is illegal (Chimbi 2016).

    A critical issue in the effort to combat violence against women and girls is agency. Onditi and Odera (2016: 9) outline five aspects of women’s agency: a) women’s access to and control over resources, b) freedom of movement, c) freedom from the risk of violence, d) decision-making over family formation, and e) political participation. Agency encompasses the ability to formulate strategic choices and to control resources and decisions that affect important life outcomes (Mishra and Tripathi 2011: 59). Women’s agency is therefore the ability of women to make effective choices and to transform those choices into desired outcomes. It rests on the fact that women, even within oppressive structures, engage in actions to change the terms of the debate, or lead to transformative change in their lives and society at large. According to Rita Manchanda (2005: 4741), women’s agency is most visible in spontaneous and sporadic interventions to protect their families from immediate violence, in campaigns against human rights abuse and for justice, and in building trust and reconciliation across the conflict divide. Women’s agency is an important constituent of women’s empowerment. Arguably, women’s agency is operative when it results in a fundamental shift in perceptions, or inner transformation, so that women are able to define self-interests and choice and consider themselves as not only able, but entitled to make choices (Mishra and Tripathi 2011: 59). Women themselves must be significant actors in the process of change rather than merely the recipients of change.

    COVAW is a clear manifestation of women’s agency in Kenya. Over the past three decades, COVAW has worked with women and girls to curtail gender violence by making them significant actors in the process of change rather than mere recipients of the change in societies. It has been able to do this by reaching out to the victims of violence and engaging state institutions. By confronting the violence against women and girls, COVAW is contributing to significant change in the way violence against women and children is viewed and addressed. COVAW has been instilling the idea that violence against women is not just a regular crime, but also a violation of women’s human rights. COVAW has been lobbying for legislation; raising awareness through advocacy, education, and training; and developing strong national networks to end the violence.


    COVAW is a women-led organization guided by feminist and human rights principles (COVAW 2016). It was established in 1995 as a membership organization, which was drawn from professional and individual women and men who are committed to the eradication of violence against women and the advancement of women’s human rights in general. At the time, COVAW strived to offer and effectively manage personalized services on a voluntary basis to its beneficiaries. COVAW’s mission is to “build effective mechanisms for preventing and responding to violence against women and girls” and seeks to promote change in Kenya by working in partnership with community-based organizations to form the critical mass needed to eradicate rampant violence against women and girls. Using a rights-based approach, COVAW believes that women are violated and vulnerable to violence because of unequal power relationships in society.

    Although Kenya has ratified international and regional instruments such as CEDAW and the African Women’s Protocol, the comprehensive Sexual Offences Act was only passed in 2006. The main activities of COVAW include a) strengthening the voice and impact of women leaders as champions of change at the community level, b) linking local issues to the national and regional policy frameworks, and c) providing services to victims of gender violence (COVAW 2012). In order to achieve its mission, COVAW has developed four strategic objectives: to support law enforcement agencies, notably the police and courts, to provide an environment that ensures that women and survivors of violence realize their rights, to directly support women and girls and empower them to stand up for their rights, to empower community change agents and promote an effective and sustainable outreach project on violence against women, and to continue to develop COVAW so that it can be effective in its mission (COVAW 2016). Since its inception, COVAW has been trying to make violence against women a public issue by ensuring that it is recognized as a crime and, more importantly, a human rights violation. To move the issue of violence against women from the private to the public domain, COVAW has embarked on the Breaking the Silence on Violence against Women campaign as one of its core and consistent strategies to create awareness (COVAW 2017). COVAW has successfully spearheaded the 16 Days of Activism campaign in Kenya, which is an annual international campaign from November 25th (the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women) to December 10th (International Human Rights Day). The campaign typically pushes three key demands for women: a) the right to be free from violence, b) the right to self-defense, and c) the right to state protection. In addition to the 16 Days of Activism campaign, COVAW has embarked on three major strategic initiatives: a) movement building and community activism (MBCA), b) access to justice and women’s rights (AJWR), and c) advocacy and communication (AC).

    The MBCA initiative primarily focuses on the prevention of violence against women. COVAW works in communities to bring change through the use of the SASA! model to train community activists who are committed to the prevention of violence against women (COVAW 2017), who then initiate community conversations and reflections on the forms of power imbalance that perpetuate violence against women in their community. SASA! is a community mobilization toolkit to influence change in community norms relating to women, entailing four phases: S (Start) is the “Pre-contemplation Phase” when people identify a women’s issue that needs to be addressed at the community level. A (Awareness) is the “Contemplation Phase” when COVAW activists garner information on the issue. S (Support) is the “Preparation for Action Phase” when activists prepare to take action by examining the support system for women within the community. A (Action) is the “Action and Maintenance Phase” when the individuals change their behavior, attitude, and maintain those changes. (COVAW 2017) SASA! is a way of confronting the power imbalances that leads to violence against women and revolves around rethinking power, which is embodied in the slogan “your power, my power and the power we have together.” SASA! frames power in terms of a) the power within a person to prevent violence against women, b) the power over information on and awareness of the issues of violence against women, c) the collective power of people to prevent violence against women, and d) the power to act and make changes in order to address violence against women (COVAW 2017). SASA! is premised on the believe that communities have the power to a) learn and become aware, b) support others, and c) create change for safer and healthier relationships. More importantly, SASA! accentuates the power of women to prevent violence against them and thereby maintain peace (COVAW 2017). The AJWR initiative seeks to strengthen the justice delivery mechanisms and to enable women and girls who are victims of violence to seek redress within the institutions of justice and helps women and girls whose rights have been violated to overcome all legal, social, financial, and structural barriers in the quest for justice. This initiative is premised on Article 48 of the 2010 Constitution of Kenya, which reinforces the right of all persons to access justice without any impediments. AJWR is based on an integrated services approach for supporting survivors of violence, who are provided with legal, medical, and psychosocial support services. Most of these services are delivered through gender-based violence recovery centers (GBVRCs) located within the Kenyatta National Hospital, the Mbagathi District Hospital in Nairobi, the Rift Valley Provincial General Hospital in Nakuru, and the Nyanza Provincial General Hospital in Kisumu. COVAW maintains a constant presence in these centers in order to support survivors (COVAW 2017). The AJWR initiative also has a legal component. Through the AJWR initiative, COVAW conducts awareness forums and legal aid clinics to empower women and girls with knowledge about their rights and the reporting procedures for human rights violations and gender violence. COVAW also collaborates with like-minded human rights organizations (e.g., the Kenyan Chapter of the International Commission of Jurists and Physicians for Human Rights) to improve the implementation of existing national, regional, and international laws and policies as well as actively advocating for new legislative and policy amendments to enhance extant laws and policies (COVAW 2017).

    The AC initiative seeks to enhance the formulation and implementation of laws and policies relating to violence against women and girls. Its main aim is to create an enabling environment for women in Kenya to claim their rights and be vindicated by working with policy makers and law enforcement bodies (COVAW 2017). The AC initiative is premised on the belief that by engaging law enforcement and judicial bodies and key national policy makers, women will receive timely, quality, and effective services in matters relating to violence against them (COVAW 2017).

    As an organization, COVAW has been working mainly in Samburu, Narok, Isiolo, Kajiado, Kisumu, Kisii, Migori, Tana River, Kwale, Nakuru, Kiambu, and Nairobi counties in Kenya. In all of these places, COVAW has been pursuing justice for highly vulnerable persons. For example, the Intellectually Challenged Women and Girls Project provides legal and psychosocial support to mentally challenged victims of SGBV. In Kwale County, COVAW works with young mothers through sensitization campaigns and clubs to train them on sexual and reproductive health and job skills, and in Narok County, COVAW has worked with key decision makers in the community to eradicate some of the traditional practices that are harmful to women, such as FGM. To demonstrate COVAW’s impact, it is useful to focus on two key areas that are at the heart of the problem of violence against women: a) sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) and b) violence related to harmful cultural practices.

    With respect to SGBV, COVAW has two major projects: the Intellectually Challenged Women and Girls Project and political violence against women, most notably during the 2007–08 post-election period. The Intellectually Challenged Women and Girls Project, which was started in 2013, seeks to provide integrated legal and psychosocial support services to victims of SGBV in Nairobi and Kiambu counties, specifically those with mental health challenges. Each year, over four hundred women benefit from the Intellectually Challenged Women and Girls Project, which provides free legal aid to survivors of violence and facilitates court representation through pro bono advocates. Currently, there are twenty-three volunteer advocates who provide litigation assistance. In addition, COVAW has trained over two hundred community paralegals as a part of this project, who receive and manage cases of sexual and gender-based violence within their communities. A key part of their work is the appropriate collection and preservation of evidence, which is critical for the successful prosecution of perpetrators of violence against women and girls (COVAW 2016). In addition to direct prosecution, the Intellectually Challenged Women and Girls Project also provides capacity training for medical and law enforcement professionals on how to address sexual and gender-based crimes, most of which target police officers, health care service providers, county administrators, prosecutors, magistrates, and district level social welfare officers. The trainings typically address structural and social challenges experienced by survivors of violence (COVAW 2017).

    The second project focuses on political violence against women, most notably the 2007–08 post-election violence. The goal of the project is to provide psychosocial assistance to the victims of sexual and gender-based violence during this period and also seeks to secure justice for them (TJRC 2013). A notable element of this project is the public interest litigation case (Petition No. 122 of 2013) filed by COVAW on February 20, 2013 seeking compensatory relief for victims, which includes women from Nairobi, Kericho, and Kisumu, the most affected areas during the 2007–08 post-election violence. The lawsuit was filed in partnership with the Kenyan chapter of the International Commission of Jurists, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), and the Independent Medico-Legal Unit (IMLU), which is a Kenyan NGO. The lawsuit was filed against the Kenyan state and named the attorney general, the director of public prosecutions, the inspector general of the National Police Service and the Independent Police Oversight Authority, the Ministry of Medical Service, and the Ministry of Public Health and Sanitation as the defendants. The key claim of the lawsuit is that a) the government failed to properly train and prepare the police to protect civilians from sexual violence, b) the police refused and/or neglected to document and investigate claims of SGBV, c) the government denied emergency medical services to victims, and d) the government failed to provide necessary care and compensation to the victims (COVAW 2017). Two of the respondents in the case, the director of public prosecutions and the inspector general of the National Police Service, filed their responses to the petition on January 22, 2014. The commencement of the hearing of evidence (commencement of the trial) began on March 25, 2014. The case is still ongoing (COVAW 2017).

    The second major focus area for COVAW has been on violence related to harmful cultural practices, such as female genital mutilation (FGM), early marriages, and forced pregnancies. COVAW has three main projects in this area: the Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights of Women and Girls in Narok County, the Maanda Sexual and Reproductive Health project in Narok County, and the Kwale Girls Project. The Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights of Women and Girls in Narok County project centers on local community activism and advocacy for laws, policies, and guidelines that are gender friendly (COVAW 2016). The Maanda Sexual and Reproductive Health project (2015–17) in Narok County focuses on addressing gender inequalities to improve sexual and reproductive health outcomes for women through, for example, educational activities geared toward changing social norms and attitudes related to reproduction and family planning. The project has been implemented in three sub-counties in Narok County: South, North, and East. The third project is the Kwale Girls Project, whose overall aim is to improve educational rights for girls in Kwale county by addressing factors that impede their education both at school and within the community through teacher training, public sensitization campaigns, and the establishment of after school clubs for girls that provide basic education on sexual and reproductive health and life skills.


    Despite the fact that African women are primarily seen as victims of violence, they have also emerged as tremendous human resources at the local, national, and international levels. By using women’s agency, women’s organizations, such as COVAW, have proved that they have the abilities and capacities to combat violence against women and girls. In a way, the successes and challenges of COVAW illustrate the broader issues of women’s agency in combating gender-based violence in Kenya. Overall, COVAW has been successful in empowering women, raising awareness, and deterring violence against women. In particular, COVAW was a key player in the fight to pass the Domestic Violence Act in 2015. Arguably, there is an improved understanding of the legal provisions and procedures relating to violence against women in Kenya, and COVAW has been a key player in that endeavor. In many places, COVAW’s training of community members as paralegals has improved the quality of case handling and enabled more victims of gender-based and sexual violence to access justice, including numerous convictions.


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    COVAW. 2017. “Herstory.” Accessed January 10, 2017. https://covaw.or.ke /who-we-are/herstory/.

    ———. 2016. New Heights Scaled: A Glimpse into 2015. Nairobi: Coalition on Violence Against Women (COVAW).

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    Kariuki, Sicily, Siddharth Chatterjee, and Stefano A. Dejak. 2016. “Let’s Unite to End Violence Against Women in Kenya.” Inter Press Service (IPS) News Agency, November 25. http://www.ipsnews.net/2016/11/lets-unite-to -end-violence-against-women-in-kenya/.

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    Mishra, Nripendra Kishore, and Tulika Tripathi. 2011. “Conceptualising Women’s Agency, Autonomy and Empowerment.” Economic and Political Weekly 46 (11): 58–65.

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    Fatuma ahmed ali (fmali@usiu.ac.ke) is associate professor of International Relations at the United States International University—Africa (USIU-A) and an external researcher of the Interuniversity Institute for Social Development & Peace (IUDESP) of the Universitat Jaume I, Castellón, Spain. She holds a European Doctorate with distinction and an International Master’s in peace, conflict and development studies from the UNESCO Chair for Philosophy of Peace, Universitat Jaume I, Castellón, Spain. She has published several chapters and articles in Spanish and English. Her research interests include issues related women and peace, sexual and gender-based violence, Islamic feminism, and peace journalism.

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  • Telling signs of abuse

    Author: covaw Category: Articles , No Comments

    With the increase of the number of cases of abuse it is very important to know and to identify signs of abuse. They are quite general and most of the times are not indicative of abuse. However, should you see someone showing the following signs, please find out what could be troubling them;

    1. The person has changed in terms of their behaviour. Victims of abuse will become secluded and start avoiding social gathering. This could be because they are either terrified of their abusers or they are ashamed about the fact that they are being abused. The victims could also start wearing heavy makeup or clothes to hide their face or their scars. Victims of emotional abuse may start doubting themselves or have low self-esteem, which may have not been present before.

    2. Victims of physical abuse usually have injuries which they themselves cannot explain or have weak excuses for. They at times become defensive, angry or emotional when they are probed further on what happened. They want people to know that everything is fine, but in reality they are afraid if people continue asking questions their abusers will blame them for not making up better excuses. Most of the times when the victims go to the hospital, they get asked by the nurses or doctors about what happened. However, they are usually accompanied by their abusers who want to make sure they do not report the abuse. When asked, the victims collaborate the abusers’ stories without question.

    3. The most important sign to watch out for is signs of control. Most abusers want to control their victims. When they feel they have no control they resort to physical, emotional or sexual abuse. The victims will most likely be on their phones calling and texting where they are and what they are doing to their abusers. This is in an effort to make sure the victims do not report the abuse they face. Whenever the victims are around the abuser, as stated above, they tend to keep quiet, are submissive or they agree with everything their abusers are saying. The victims will also be constantly asking for permission or approval from their abuser before they do anything, which may not have been the case before.

    If you ever get a chance to spot any of these signs, please do not assume that they mean the person is being abused or take matters into your own hands. Approach with caution, investigate and find out if really the person is being abused. Once you have established the person is being abused, make sure you report the matter to the relevant authorities. We all have a responsibility in addressing cases of abuse. Report it before it is too late.

    SASA! Initiative In order to identify and create awareness concerning abuse, violence on women and children, the Coalition on Violence against Women (COVAW) uses the SASA! approach. SASA! is a Swahili word that means “Now” and it is an acronym for the four phases that are used to engage the community to build their capacity to prevent and respond to cases of abuse and violence.

    S – Start. This is the initial phase of the project where the community members are made aware that they have the power to stop cases of abuse.

    A – Awareness. The community is then informed about power and the fact that during abuse the perpetrators use power over the victims to make them submit to their control.

    S – Support. The community members are then trained that they can support the victims of abuse. They support by joining their ‘Power with Others’.

    A – Action. The community members are encouraged to take action and use their power to prevent abuse. (SASA! is a model developed by Raising Voices, Uganda)

    Report the cases to:

    The Healthcare Assistance Kenya Hotline 1195,

    Childline Kenya 116,

    The National Police Service Hotline 999, 112, 911

    COVAW 0722 594794 or 0733 594794 info@covaw.or.ke

    References Help Guide. Org. (2018) Domestic violence and abuse: Recognizing the signs of an abusive relationship and getting help. Retrieved from https://www.helpguide.org/articles/abuse/domestic-violence-and-abuse.htm on 3rd October 2018

    Raising Voices (2018). SASA! is a ground-breaking community mobilization approach developed by Raising Voices for preventing violence against women and HIV. Retrieved from http://raisingvoices.org/sasa/ on 4th October 2018

    Very Well Mind. (2017). Top warning signs of domestic abuse. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/signs-someone-is-being-abused-66535 on 3rd October 2018

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  • Welcome Our New Executive Director

    Author: covaw Category: Articles , No Comments

    Wairimu Munyinyi-Wahome is an advocacy and policy specialist, with over 16 years of international experience, including in Namibia, Somaliland, Sierra Leone and, more recently in Kenya. In these countries, Wairimu has served in various roles including Advocacy Advisor, Mainstreaming Coordinator with Concern Worldwide, Country Advocacy Manager with Oxfam where she also briefly served as an Acting Country Director. In Kenya, Wairimu has served with the Norwegian Refugee Council as the Regional Advocacy, Protection and Communications Advisor for Eastern and Horn of Africa and Yemen. She served with Oxfam in Kenya as the Programmes Director.

    Wairimu is passionate about gender and development issues and is keen to see that laws and policies in development accord women and girls their rightful place in the mainstream agenda and that their rights are secured and respected as they pursue their potential as equal citizens. Wairimu believes strongly that for African countries to move to the next frontier of development, they must firmly embed the rights of women and girls in their interventions, by ensuring that they are protected and safe to contribute to development processes in their personal and public spaces.

    Wairimu holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Social Sciences from the Catholic University of Eastern Africa, an Honors Degree in Development Studies from the University of South Africa and is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in Public Policy and Management from the Strathmore Business School. Wairimu is a proud alumnus of Loreto High School, Limuru.

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  • Violence against women and girls should not be business as usual

    Author: covaw Category: Articles , No Comments

    It is very heart-breaking to realize that violence against women and children is becoming a recurring trend in Kenya. Every day in the dailies and in the news there is that one report about violence meted out on a woman or a child.

    On Thursday, 14th June 2018, Doreen, a student of Nairobi Institute of Business studies was pushed out of a bus for asking the conductor to stop the bus after it had passed her stage. She fell hard and died from the impact. This is one story that was reported. What about the other cases that are kept silent? The victims are afraid that they will face stigmatization and isolation from the society. This is because there are past reports where the victims were told,

    “Are you sure it was rape?” “What were you doing to find yourself in that situation?” “You were the one asking for it.” “You antagonized him. You needed to be taught a lesson.” “These things happen.” “What were you doing walking at night?” “It was because of your dressing.” “Don’t report it otherwise you will be hurt or killed.” “If you report it, it will break up our family.” “Think about the consequences and the shame you will bring to our family.” “Men are like that.”

    This destroys the victims’ psyche and they feel as if it was their fault for the violence that they faced. It is also made worse for the fact that they may not know they have rights, or they may know their rights, but are not empowered to report or stand up for themselves.

    It is time for us as a society to break the silence. We are all responsible for breaking the cycle of violence. These are our wives, mothers, daughters, aunties, nieces, grandmothers, and friends. We need to protect them. It is up to us to report when we see cases of violence and support the victims. If we do not, someday it will affect us directly, and we will have regrets of our inaction.

    Be a champion today. Stop the violence. Break the silence.

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  • The Day of The African Child

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    On the 16th of June 2018, COVAW and the National Council for Children’s Services will commemorate the Day of the African Child in Menzamwenye, Lunga Lunga Sub-County, Kwale County.

    This year’s theme is ‘Leave No Child Behind for Africa’s Development’.

    We are going to talk on issues about FGM/C, SGBV, Child Trafficking and Child Sexual Exploitation.

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  • Ignored by State at Home, Feted by the World Abroad

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    By L. Muthoni Wanyeki

    Enough has been said about what the national honours given out on Jamhouri Day were meant to signify. The state has lost sight of the purpose that such honours are meant to serve.

    To remind us of the value of living up to and advancing the best part of ourselves. To record for the historical record those who’ve had the courage and integrity to do so. And, in so doing, to contribute to the on-going process of creating history.

    For it is no longer true that history is only written by the winners. History is also increasingly contested. With the ‘losers’ increasingly inserting themselves into the story. The complex, multifaceted and true story of the many actors and organisations that led to our independence, for example. The equally complex, multifaceted and true story of the many actors and organisations that brought us our second liberation—symbolised by the achievement, in the end, of our Constitution of 2010.

    Not to mention the pain of those whose stories were captured in the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission. Which, although still unrealised, was the product of the many Kenyans and Kenyan organisations who continue to believe our history must record what not only the colonial state, but also the post-colonial state, has done to us.

    However farcical and tragic our national honours have become, time will vindicate those Kenyans and Kenyan organisations. Time always does.

    Away from here, however, at least some of those Kenyans and Kenyan organisations have received the recognition they are due. That recognition is not for them alone—it is for all those in whose name they work. In this case, the many (many, many) survivors of sexual violence in times of conflict.

    On December 7, during this year’s annual Assembly of State Parties of the International Criminal Court, the global Gender Justice Legacy Wall was launched. The ‘bricks’ of this wall included no less than 151 individuals and organisations from around the world who have worked to find restitution for women (and men) who are so violated during times of conflict.

    From the women involved in negotiations of the Rome Statute, who sought to ensure that sexual violence would be understood as part of all three (now four) international crimes—crimes against humanity, genocide and war crimes (as well as, as of this ASP, the crime of aggression). Here we have ‘bricks’ for Kenyan advocates Betty Kaari Murungi, currently with the Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Committee for South Sudan, and Binaifer Nowrojee, currently Asia Director with the Open Society Foundations. Hongera Betty, hongera Binaifer.

    To the women who have served as investigators, prosecutors, judges in the international criminal tribunals as well as the ICC. Here we have ‘bricks’ for Kenyans Lady Justice Joyce Aluoch, currently completing her term as a judge with the ICC as well as our former Chief Justice Willy Mutunga. Hongera Lady Justice, hongera our former CJ.

    To the women’s rights organisations who are the first to provide services to survivors of sexual violence during conflict—post-rape care and on-going counselling. Who collect their stories and advocate on their behalf. Here we find a ‘brick’ for the Kenyan Coalition on Violence against Women, which is still before the Kenyan courts seeking justice for survivors of sexual violence from 2007-8. Hongera COVAW.

    Most importantly, the wall honours the brave survivors who have testified before these tribunals and the ICC—the risks they have taken in doing so recognised by the fact that, on this wall, their ‘bricks’ are represented by their witness numbers only.

    These Kenyans are in the company, on this wall, of no less than three former United Nations High Commissioners for Human Rights—Canadian Louise Arbour, Irishwoman Mary Robinson and South African Navi Pillay—who also served as an ICC judge after serving on the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. They are in the company of current ICC Prosecutor, Gambian Fatou Bensouda. They are in the company of South African Yasmin Sooka, who served on the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions for both Sierra Leone and South Africa.

    They are in the company of Congolese physician Denis Mukwege, who opened up Panzi Hospital in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo to help treat survivors of the sexual violence there. And they are in the company of those brave Argentinian women who stood up to the Argentinian dictatorship between 1976 and 1983, demanding the return of all the ‘disappeared.’

    The company we keep tells us so much. The company in which these Kenyans find themselves reminds us of the purpose of honours—to live up to and advance the best part of ourselves, to place into the historical record those who’ve had the courage and integrity to do so and, in so doing, to create a history that speaks to the protection of the weakest amongst us. Hongera Betty, Binaifer, Lady Justice Aluoch, former CJ Mutunga and COVAW. Our state doesn’t recognise you. But the world does. And we do.

    L. Muthoni Wanyeki, PhD is Africa Director with the Open Society Foundations (OSF) network based in London. This column is written in her personal capacity and does not necessarily reflect the views of OSF.

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  • Gender Desk Launch at Archers Post Police Station: 26th June 2014 Speech

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    It is with great pleasure that i stand here before you as we celebrate the opening of the gender desk at archers post police station. I feel proud that as we mark this mile stone on our endeavour to make Samburu county a place safe for women, girls, men and boys, we can say that we have a gender desk where victims of gender based violence will not only be able to report cases of violence without victimisation or discrimination, but also a place they can call a safe space for reporting symptomatic problems they might be experiencing.

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  • Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict

    Author: covaw Category: Articles , 1 Comment

    The Foreign Secretary of Britain, William Hague and Angelina Jolie, Special Envoy for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, co-hosted the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict on June 10-13, 2014 in London.This was the largest gathering ever brought together on the subject, with a view to creating irreversible momentum against sexual violence in conflict and practical action that impacts those on the ground.The summit is a follow-up to the Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict launched in 2013 to end impunity, increase accountability, and provide justice and safety for victims of sexual violence. One of the outcomes of the summit is to be the first international protocol on how to document and investigate sexual violence in conflicts, which will set international standards and give guidance to countries on effective laws and prosecutions.Angelina Jolie, commented, “The use of rape as a weapon is one of the greatest injustices of our time.”  It destroys women, families, communities and cultures. The rape of civilians during times of war is nothing new. However, in recent decades the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war has come to the attention of the international community.

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  • Sexual and Gender Based Violence Petition adjourned to 25th March 2014

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    Petition No.122 of 2013 came up for hearing on 22nd January 2014 at The Constitutional and Human Rights Division of the High Court. The matter was before Justice Lenaola.Despite this petition having been filed on 20th February 2013, the government and state agencies who are respondents had continuously failed to respond. It was only yesterday during the court proceedings that both the Attorney General and the Police filed their Replying Affidavits.

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    What is this case about? A group of individuals and civil society organizations are filing a petition in the Constitutional and Human Rights Division of the High Court of Kenya seeking to compel the Government of Kenya to address the SGBV that occurred during the 2007/2008 post-election violence. The petitioners claim that the government failed to properly train and prepare police to protect civilians from sexual violence while it was occurring. In its aftermath, the police refused to document and investigate claims of SGBV, leading to obstruction and miscarriage of justice. Furthermore, the government denied emergency medical services to victims at the time, and failed to provide necessary care and compensation to address their suffering and harm. Ultimately, the petitioners want the government to publicly acknowledge and apologize to the victims for their failure to protect the rights of Kenyans; to provide appropriate compensation, including psycho-social, medical, and legal assistance to the victims; to investigate the sexual violence and prosecute those who are responsible; and to establish a special team with some international staff within the Department of Public Prosecutions to ensure that such investigations and prosecutions are credible and independent. What type of case is this? It is a constitutional case. As such, it seeks to establish that the Government of Kenya violated the repealed and current Constitution, as well as international treaties to which Kenya is a party and international norms. It is not a criminal case seeking criminal penalties against the government officials who failed in their duties. However, the petition does ask the court to find that the post-election sexual violence rises to the level of crimes against humanity and that, as a result of that finding, the government was and is obligated to investigate these international crimes and prosecute them wherever the evidence permits.  What was the nature of the sexual violence described in the petition? Perpetrators targeted women and girls, in particular, for sexual and gender-based violence, including rape, defilement, gang rape, forced pregnancy, deliberate transmission of HIV or any other life threatening sexually transmitted disease, sexual assault, and other indecent acts. While the vast majority of sexual crimes were committed against women and girls, men, too, were subjected to SGBV including forcible circumcision, sodomy, and penile amputations.

    Who committed it? State actors and non-state actors targeted women and girls, in particular, for sexual violence. State actors consisted of members of the Kenya Police Service, Administrative Police, General Service Unit, and other state security agents, collectively referred to as “police.” However, non-state actors also perpetrated SGBV, including ordinary citizens and members of organized gangs and outlaws groups. 

    When and where did the SGBV happen? In the period following the announcement of election results on December 30, 2007, until March 2008, the petitioners and many others suffered SGBV. The petitioners in this case experienced SGBV in Kibera, Kericho and Naivasha. Who is bringing the case? Eight individuals, survivors of SGBV, and four Kenyan NGOs that assist victims and promote human rights, have come together to file the petition. Among the individual petitioners are six women and two men. Who is this case against? The petitioners are holding responsible the following officials: The Attorney General, The Director of Public Prosecutions, The Independent Policing Oversight Authority Chairperson, The Inspector-General of the National Police Service The Minister for Medical Services, The Minister for Public Health and Sanitation What, exactly, are the petitioners claiming? The petitioners are claiming that the Government of Kenya failed them, and the Kenyan people, in the following ways:

    By failing to take appropriate measures to prevent the SGBV following the 2007 elections, including failing to train police forces, and to plan and prepare proper policing policy, operations, and command structure By tolerating the SGBV and failing to discipline and supervise those police involved in SGBV By failing to protect victims from SGBV perpetrated by non-state actors, and by failing to intervene when either state or non-state actors committed SGBV By failing to provide emergency medical services to victims of SGBV By refusing to mount prompt, independent, impartial, effective, and public investigations of unlawful acts by the police By failing to redress the serious human rights violations committed by police during the post-election violence through compensation, restitution, medical and psychosocial services, public apologies, and other reparations to the survivors and victims’ families. What law do the petitioners say that the government violated? The petitioners claim that certain Kenyan laws and both the repealed and the new Constitution of Kenya, read in conjunction with international treaties to which Kenya is a party, create legal obligations that the Government of Kenya has failed to meet. In particular, the laws violated, through the government’s action or inaction, include:

    The Kenyan Constitution, both repealed and present, which included or includes the right to life, the prohibition of torture, inhuman and degrading treatment, the right to a remedy, the right to security of the person, and the right to effective remedy, among other provisions; Kenyan laws including the Police Act, the Criminal Procedure Code, the International Crimes Act, and various other acts governing the police and policing, among others; International treaties to which Kenya is a party, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment, the Convention on the Elimination on All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, and the Treaty of the East African Community. How has the Kenyan government failed in its legal obligations? The laws listed above require the Kenyan government, including its various relevant bodies such as the police, the Attorney General, the DPP, and others, to take a wide range of action to protect the Kenyan people from SGBV by taking appropriate preventative action (including, for example, police training and oversight) and ameliorative action in case SGBV occurs nonetheless. The government failed both to take all necessary measures to prevent the police and other non-state actors from committing acts of sexual violence and, once those occurred, to properly investigate and prosecute offenders. Finally, the SGBV targeted a large number of civilian victims and amounted to crimes against humanity. Under both national and international law, the Kenyan government has an absolutely duty to investigate and prosecute such crimes, and utterly failed to do so. Why did the petitioners have to bring this case? Despite repeated private requests and public calls, both domestic and international, for investigations and prosecutions of police and non-state actors committing SGBV against civilians during the election-related violence, the Government of Kenya has failed to launch credible, timely, and impartial investigations. Consequently, the petitioners and other Kenyans who suffered SGBV during the post-election period have been unable to obtain justice.

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