Campaign seeks 1 million men to end gender based violence

Today, as around the world 16 days of activism against gender based violence begins, many Kenyans are asking if the campaign is likely to help eliminate this issue that contributes highly to new HIV infections.

Today (25 November), as around the world 16 days of activism against gender based violence begins, many Kenyans are asking if the campaign is likely to help eliminate this issue that contributes highly to new HIV infections.

Recently efforts to eliminate gender based violence in Kenya seem like an uphill battle with cases of women being stripped in public in Nairobi for what many men call “indecent dressing”.

But Nairobi Women’s Hospital for one, which offers free psychosocial services and treatment to gender based violence (GBV) survivors, is not giving up hope and has tailored a strategy to have one million men sign up in support of the campaign.

Campaign targets men

The men will also benefit from continued training to make them role models in ending GBV. Medical and psychosocial support services acting manager Rebecca Gitau said the department already has thousands of signatures from men including high-profile officials in the government and other people in the public domain. “The perpetrators are mostly male adults of sound mind, which is why we want men to own the campaign,” she said, pointing out that 90 per cent of cases reported at the hospital have the perpetrators as men. “It is all the more reason we saw the need to incorporate them, in order for them to understand the impact of female molestation,” she said.

Around the world one in three girls and women will be beaten, coerced into sex or abused in their lifetime. Research indicates that vulnerability to HIV among women who have experienced sexual violence may be up to three times higher than among those who have not.

Records from the hospital indicate that the youngest female to be sexually abused was only one month old while the oldest was a 106 years old grandmother! The psychosocial department receives over 100 survivors every month..

The recent incidents of stripping of women in Nairobi has triggered concerns from some HIV-related networks on whether enough has been done on sensitizing people on transmission of HIV. “If women can be stripped in broad daylight in the city centre, what would happen in the shadows of darkness,?” wondered Christinie Kendi a member of the Network of Journalists Living with HIV in Kenya. She noted that sexual violence is one of the key barriers towards eliminating the spread of new HIV infections.

Legal support to end GBV

Even as the 16 days of activism stir up expectations among Kenyans, there is need for more intensified training for both the police force and the judiciary to enforce justice against perpetrators and stiffen penalties against such offenders. Edward Mwenda, a Kenyan lawyer says that it calls for combined efforts from all stakeholders to end GBV. “The legislation alone can’t stamp out this trend,” he said, adding that the public needs to be sensitized on how to deal with abuse from the village and cultural level. He regretted that there are thousands of abuse cases that go unreported because the perpetrator is usually known to the person or is a relative. “To protect the family name, the survivor opts to remain silence and often may not as much as seek medical help.”

Linda (name changed), 23, narrated how her father abused her sexually since she was a young girl and the two kept the secret to themselves until she joined high school where she disclosed to her guidance and counselling teacher. “My dad didn’t rape me but he lured me to believe that sex is good and ended up infecting me with HIV,” she said amidst sobs, adding that no counselling is enough to make her forgive her father.

Cultural attitudes to sexual violence

A study carried out by the Federation of Women Lawyers Kenya (FIDA) in 2012 showed that among the leading five challenges surrounding GBV is wife inheritance. The widows are involved in ritual cleansing where a widow is forced to have sex with a social outcast who is paid by the dead husband’s family supposedly to cleanse the woman of her dead husband’s evil spirit.

Not only is this a violation of the woman’s body and rights, but is yet another opportunity for the spread of HIV. In Kenya, communities that have this tradition include the Luo, Luhya, Teso and MijiKenda.

Intensified civic education on GBV with action to change cultural attitudes and behaviours is critical if we want to see a Kenya where women are not routinely at risk of being sexually violated and infected with HIV, whether it’s through being stripped in public, forced to participate in wife inheritance rituals forced into early marriage or simply raped because a man feels he has rights over a woman’s body.

As the campaign against gender violence gets underway, perhaps there is hope that with the targeted involvement of one million men this year will be different and the tide can be turned on GBV.

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