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How to Put a Stop to Election-Related Sexual Violence in Kenya

New report from OHCHR, Physicians for Human Rights, and UN Women identifies key gaps and concrete actions to prevent and respond to cycles of election-related sexual violence in Kenya

NAIROBI– Institutional weaknesses undermine the prevention of and response to sexual violence during electoral periods in Kenya, according to a new report published today by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), and UN Women.

Since the 1990s, elections in Kenya have been marred by violence, including pervasive sexual violence perpetrated by security forces and civilians. To date, there has been no accountability for crimes of electoral-related sexual violence perpetrated during elections, nor justice and reparations for the survivors.

Against this backdrop, OHCHR, PHR, and UN Women undertook the human rights-based assessment – “Breaking Cycles of Violence: Gaps in Prevention of and Response to Electoral-Related Sexual Violence in Kenya” – conducting field research based on key informant interviews and medical-legal record reviews in Bungoma, Kisumu, Nairobi, and Vihiga counties. The research team extensively engaged with survivors of sexual violence and government agencies in the health, security, and legal sectors mandated to prevent and respond to sexual violence.

In order to prevent similar violence from occurring during the upcoming 2022 elections, the report identifies the key gaps and barriers to effective prevention of and response to sexual violence. The study finds that concrete actions by key stakeholders are urgently needed to ensure accountability, address the grievances and needs of survivors, and implement preventative measures ahead of the next elections – and thus fulfill the Kenyan government’s obligations under human rights treaties to prevent, respond to, and provide effective remedies for sexual violence. It also documents promising best practices and recommends survivor-centred measures that should be prioritized by the health, security, and legal sectors in Kenya.

“The Government of Kenya must live up to its obligations and prevent violence, protect our communities, investigate and prosecute preparators, and provide reparations to survivors,” said Naitore Nyamu, head of Physicians for Human Rights’ Kenya office. “Policy and legislative reforms are needed now if we are to successfully avert sexual violence around the 2022 elections.”

 “Ensuring accountability for electoral-related sexual violence is critical to prevent future recurrence. Effective prevention must be the priority in the lead-up to the 2022 elections – and we must act now to strengthen institutional capacities to prevent and respond to sexual violence. To be effective, national and county-level efforts must be survivor-centred and involve the meaningful participation of grassroots and women’s human rights organisations, including networks of survivors,” said Li Fung, OHCHR Senior Human Rights Adviser in Kenya.

The study finds that there was a lack of preparation to respond to election-related sexual violence in 2017, as well as weak coordination between election observers and civil society organisations in advance of and during the elections. OHCHR, PHR, and UN Women recommend that the Kenyan government prioritize sexual violence in its electoral security preparedness and contingency planning, including through a dedicated risk assessment plan for prevention, early warning, mitigation, and response.

“For sexual violence in elections not to happen again, we have to ensure that we leave no one behind, and that we put the last first, especially in accessing essential services. This means positioning, listening to, engaging with, and fulfilling the rights of survivors and their families. It means ensuring they can access essential services, including justice,” according to the UN Women Kenya Office.

The analysis also finds that protective services for sexual violence survivors were not readily available or accessible in 2017. Twenty-nine of 39 2017 survivors interviewed for the study said they had been unable to access medical care and ultimately contracted HIV or other STIs. The report recommends that the Kenyan government adopt a national policy to guide implementation of relevant survivor protection laws, and that county governments prioritize adoption and implementation of protective measures for survivors.

The report further finds that law enforcement agencies and the judicial system have failed to credibly investigate and prosecute sexual violence, and existing efforts have not placed survivors at the centre of their efforts. To date, there have been no completed prosecutions or convictions for cases of electoral-related violence around the 2007 or 2017 elections. OHCHR, PHR, and UN Women recommend a set of key actions to establish and enhance investigative and prosecution mechanisms to ensure justice for survivors.

Additionally, the government of Kenya has not acknowledged state responsibility for past electoral-related sexual violence, nor has it created an inclusive process to provide reparations or remedies to survivors. The report recommends that the government acknowledge these violations and initiate meaningful consultations with survivors to develop a comprehensive reparations policy.

 “To break the cycles of violence we have seen around elections in Kenya, we must act now to address these gaps in prevention and response,” said Nyamu of PHR. “Everyone has a role to play – from the president to the police, from judges to civil society – to better support survivors and to ensure this never happens again.”

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.

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