Women’s Human Rights Violations During The Covid-19 Pandemic by Martin Mavenjina

Volume 18, Issue 1  | 
Published 27/03/2021
  |
Credit KHRC Media Credit KHRC Media
Martin Mavenjina

The Program Advisor, Transitional Justice, Kenya Human Rights Commission.

On 13 March 2020, the Government announced that it had recorded its first case of Covid-19 in Kenya. This was after a 27 year-old woman tested positive for the virus on 12 March in Nairobi, a week after returning from the United States via London. The government proceeded to announce a raft of measures to contain the spread of the pandemic. This included amongst others; the establishment of a National Emergency Response Committee through an Executive Order to be chaired by the Cabinet Secretary for Health, reduction in the number of passengers in public service vehicles, a dusk to dawn curfew, banning of public gatherings, social distancing in public places and wearing of masks. To ensure that there was strict compliance with Government protocols and measures, Kenya’s National Police Service was tasked with enforcing some of these measures to ensure that all members of the public were compliant. Some of these measures employed by the Government may have inadvertently facilitated the transmission of the Covid-19 virus as a result of forcefully quarantining tens of thousands of people in facilities that lacked proper sanitation, protective equipment and food. In doing so, the methods they employed subjected many people, including women, to various forms of human rights violations.

Repressive Policing:

Women in particular bore the brunt of repressive policing as was evidenced from the conduct of law enforcement agencies while enforcing different government protocols. On 28 July 2020, Kenyans were treated to ugly scenes of four male police officers, armed with guns and rungus, severely beating up Mlango Kubwa member of county assembly Hon. Mutheu Musyimi within the precincts of the county assembly. She sat down and pleaded for mercy but the officers would have none of this, they continued to batter her. She was left nursing serious injuries and despite writing a letter to the Inspector General requesting him to hold these officers to account, investigations are still ongoing. On 11 June 2020, Kenyans were yet again reminded of the brutal nature of police officers when a harrowing video clip of a woman being dragged from a motorbike on the streets of Olenguruone went viral on different social media platforms. Mercy Cherono, a mother of one, stated that a policeman attached to the local police station tied both her hands on the motorbike and started dragging her along the tarmac road, claiming she had broken into his house and stolen clothes and a laptop. A medical report from Olenguruone sub-county hospital confirmed that Mercy had a broken leg and soft tissue injuries on the arm with a wound on the forehead. Three police officers that were accused of subjecting Mercy to this cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment have since been arrested and investigations are ongoing but they are yet to be held to account. 

Ruth Mumbi, a woman human rights defender, community mobiliser and coordinator of Bunge La Wa Mama Mashinani received threats from an unknown person, that she would be ‘disappeared’ if she did not remove posts she had made on social media. The posts documented the eviction of 5000 households in Kariobangi and the impact of the evictions on the tenants. The Kenya Human Rights Commission intervened in this matter through the provision of legal support and also ensuring that Ruth not only recorded a statement at the Directorate of Criminal Investigations, but also met with the Director of Public Prosecutions.

The dusk to dawn curfew put in place by the Government as one of the measures to contain the spread of Covid-19 gave law enforcement agencies unfettered discretion to unlawfully detain people, including women. This was despite the fact that the Government through the Ministry of Health published a quarantine protocol describing the standards for quarantine facilities. Carolyn Akumu, 35 year old woman and her one month old child, were on 1 May 2020 arrested by Busia county officers as she rushed home at about 7.10pm. She was forced into a quarantine facility in Nambale, 40 kilometers from Busia, where she slept on a cold floor with nothing to cover herself and her child. She was released from the quarantine facility following a negative covid-19 test but this was only after the intervention of civil society groups.

Gender Based Violence:

Women in Kenya have for a long time been victims of gender based violence and the efforts by the Government to address the same have not borne any fruit. The Covid-19 pandemic and the government measures put in place exacerbated the situation as many women were confined to their homes while others may have been trapped in quarantine centres with their abusers. The dusk to dawn curfew imposed by the President on 25 March 2020 also meant that victims of gender based violence had limited or no access to essential services like health facilities, and could not report these cases at police stations. Police officers and health workers were redeployed from different police stations and health facilities that ordinarily provide services for survivors. They were now redeployed to ensure strict compliance with government measures and also to contain and respond to the direct health threats presented by the pandemic. The suspension of normal court operations by the National Council on Administration of Justice as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic meant that victims of Gender Based Violence were not able to easily access legal redress through courts of law.

As such, there has been an increase in the number of gender based violence cases during the pandemic. A study undertaken by the Ministry of Health and the Populations Council in April 2020 on Covid-19 knowledge, attitudes, practices and needs showed 39 percent of women and 32 percent of men were experiencing tensions in their homes. A press statement issued by the Federation of Women Lawyers Kenya disclosed that they had received 81 cases of gender based violence through their toll free line between 15April to 3 March 2020. On 1April 2020, The National Council on Administration of Justice in a statement reported that there had been a significant spike in sexual offences in many parts of the county. These offences constituted 38.5 per cent of the criminal matters reported and in some cases, the perpetrators of such offences were close relatives, guardians and /or persons living with the victims.

In the wake of the rising numbers, President Kenyatta called on the National Research Centre to investigate rising reports of violence against women and girls including rape and domestic violence, particularly its effects on girls; and for security agencies to take remedial action that was aimed at ensuring that perpetrators of this violation faced the full force of the law. It was hoped that this directive would comprehensively deal with the critical issue of gender based violence during the pandemic but seven months since the directive was made, women still continue to be victims of gender based violence.

Female Genital Mutilation:

The enactment of Kenya’s new constitution in 2010 played a significant role in enhancing campaigns against harmful traditional practices. Prior to the pandemic, Kenya was counted as one of the countries where considerable progress against FGM has been made. The Government of Kenya had pledged to end FGM by 2022, eight years ahead of the sustainable development goal 5 deadline. This noble target by Kenya has since been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic that has created a conducive environment for female genital mutilation, a barbaric and repressive customary practice that entails the partial or total removal of the female genitalia and can cause numerous health problems.

Since 13 March 2020 to date, there has been an increase in cases of female genital mutilation despite the fact that there exists legislation - the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act, that imposes harsh penalties on perpetrators, including a minimum fine of about Ksh 200,000/- or a three year imprisonment or both. Furthermore, the measures put in place to contain the virus have prevented government officials, law enforcement agencies and humanitarian workers from travelling to regions with high numbers of female genital mutilation cases.

The decision by the Government to close schools in order to contain the pandemic may have contributed to the increase in number of female genital mutilation cases. This is premised on the fact that schools have usually acted as a safe sanctuary for young girls.

Forced Evictions:

Despite clear legal provisions on evictions, law enforcement agencies subjected many people, especially women and children to unlawful/forced evictions that were characterized by wanton destruction of property and displacement. On 4 May 2020, over 7000 families including women and children were unlawfully evicted from Kariobangi by the police and officials from the Nairobi Water and Sewerage Company. The officials brought in excavators that were used to demolish homes, churches, shops, schools and also destroyed personal belongings. These evictions were effected despite the existence of a court order that was meant to stop the evictions, pending the determination of the case in court. On 15 May 2020, over 1000 people including women and children were unlawfully evicted from their homes in Ruai by law enforcement agencies who were armed with batons, guns and excavators that were used to demolish homes. On 1 October 2020, Kenyans would yet again witness the unlawful evictions of families from Dagoretti Corner by law enforcement agencies and officials from the Kenya Power and Lighting Company in a quest to reclaim a parcel of land that belonged to the company, leaving 3000 people homeless. These unlawful evictions left many people, especially women homeless with some sleeping out in the cold, with no food. This situation has been further exacerbated by the need to adhere to the strict government protocols like the dusk to dawn curfew or risk stiff penalties if found in breach of the same.

Women from indigenous communities in Kenya have also borne the brunt of unlawful eviction during the pandemic. On 2 July 2020, officers from Kenya Forest Services began a large scale campaign whose aim was to evict the Ogiek from the Mau Forest. By 9 July 2020, over 600 indigenous families had been unlawfully evicted from the Mau Forest. This action by the Kenya Forest Service clearly defied the 2017 judgement of the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights, which upheld the Ogiek people’s right to their ancestral land in the Mau Forest.

These unlawful evictions by law enforcement agencies during a deadly pandemic were not only a clear violation of certain provisions within Kenya’s 2009 Eviction and Resettlement Guidelines that require a written notice to be published in the Government gazette within 90 days; but also did not meet internationally accepted standards. The UN Basic Principles and Guidelines on Development-Based Evictions and Displacement contains specific provisions that are to the effect that evictions should be carried out in a manner that respects the rights of those affected, particularly women, children, older persons and persons with disabilities.

The pandemic has not only taken a toll on Kenya’s economy, but has left many women struggling to survive. The government needs to put in place measures that will not only protect women against any forms of violence but also guarantee their rights during the pandemic. This could be through the provision of support services and avenues for victims of sexual and gender based violence and also through the establishment of referral mechanisms that are functional and fully equipped. Perpetrators of sexual and gender based violence should face the full force of the law and all law enforcement agencies implicated in police brutality or unlawful use of force should also be held to account. The Kenyan Government should stop any further contemplated evictions and should urgently provide assistance to women who have been victims of unlawful evictions and also guarantee their constitutional right to shelter, food, water and sanitation.

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