Sexual violence is the unspoken story of war. Images of causalities, death, and destruction only tell part of the story. Many individuals, both men and women, are the silent victims of sexual violence in the context of violent conflict. There have been documented cases of sexual violence in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, the conflict in the Balkans, as well as the ongoing cases of Syria and Libya (to name a few). Many of the victims do not speak out for fear of being ostracized by their communities; however, eight individuals in Kenya have decided to speak out, fight for their rights, and strive to attain justice.
In Kenya, the post-election violence following the December 2007 election resulted in the deaths of approximately 1,100 people and the displacement of 600,000 individuals. However, many were also victims of sexual violence, a violence that was conducted by police officers and looters in the wake of the chaos created by the contended election results. The acts of sexual violence included, but are not limited to, rape resulting in HIV and forced circumcision. The nature of this violence, its widespread and systematic nature, amounts these crime to the category of crimes against humanity; yet, justice has not been achieved for these victims. Having waited five years for a government response, eight Kenyans have decided sue the Kenya government.
The Nairobi High Court will hear the case in which eight survivors of the sexual violence (two men and six women) are suing the Kenyan government. The grounds upon which this case is being prosecuted is on two counts: the failure of the Kenyan government to prosecute perpetrators of sexual violence and failure to both protect victims from the violence and to provide ex post facto services to the victims. Civil society organizations including the Coalition on Violence Against Women, the Independent Medico-Legal Unity, the Kenyan Section of the International Commission of Jurists, and Physicians for Human Rights, have been instrumental in supporting these victims in their search for justice. The trial commenced in February 2013. To date, the Kenyan government has not issued a formal apology nor have reparations been offered to these victims.
Violent conflict creates a situation of mass chaos, insecurity, and uncertainty. There are those that take advantage of situations such as these, using it as an opportunity to perpetrate other criminal acts, including sexual violence. The problem is, however, that those being victimized by acts of sexual violence are civilians, innocent bystanders. The fact that these eight individuals are choosing to speak up is groundbreaking in three ways.
First, these individuals are spreading awareness of the prevalence of sexual violence in the midst of conflict, and in doing so, they are reducing the stigmatization of victimization by these acts. These individuals are entitled to the same rights as any other victim and in choosing to claim these rights, these victims are trailblazers in the fight to combat sexual violence.
Second, men as well as women are claiming victimhood. The fact that men have chosen to speak out is incredibly important because sexual violence against men carries a higher stigma than sexual violence against women. Moreover, in the criminal law of many countries sexual violence is written as a crime that can only be committed against a woman. Thus, the voice of these men is giving voice to the other side of this victimhood and is tremendously important in changing the way sexual violence is understood.
Third, the utilization of the Kenyan court, rather than resorting to violent conflict, demonstrates a movement towards faith in the Kenyan judicial system. Historically, the Kenyan judicial system has been criticized as highly corrupt, plagued with rampant impunity. However, since the last election, the Kenyan Constitution has been rewritten given complete independence to the judiciary. The restructuring of the court system was lead by Chief Justice Willy Mutunga who took great pains to insure the independence of the judiciary, retrain judges to eliminate impunity, and educate the general population as to the workings of justice system. The fact that these sexual violence victims are choosing to utilize the justice system demonstrates a movement towards increased trust in Kenya’s judiciary.
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Jolene Hansell is a Master’s Candidate of Conflict Resolution at Georgetown University. Her specific area of focus is transitional justice and rule of law. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on twitter @joleneh340