Breaking Cycles of Violence: Gaps in Prevention of and Response to Electoral-Related Sexual Violence in Kenya


By Christine Alai, Physicians for Human Rights consultant; Beverline Ongaro, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights; Lydia Muthiani, OHCHR consultant; Grace Wangechi Kahuria, UN Women

I. Introduction

‘I was targeted because my husband is from a different community that was perceived to hold a differing political opinion from the one of the dominant community we live in.’

Survivor of sexual violence during the 2017 elections interviewed in this research Electoral-related sexual violence (ERSV) is a form of sexual violence, including rape, gang rape, sexual assault and defilement [1], associated with electoral processes and/or intended to influence or achieve a political end within an electoral process. In Kenya, sexual violence has been a recurrent feature of elections, which have been marred by deadly violence, unrest and serious human rights violations and abuses. Outbreaks of sexual violence during elections have been documented since the 1990s.[2] Following the post-election violence in 2007/2008, the Commission of Inquiry into the Post-Election Violence (CIPEV), known as the ‘Waki Commission’, documented 900 cases of sexual violence perpetrated by security agents, militia groups and civilians against both men, boys, women and girls in a context of large scale violence, mass displacement and more than 1,000 deaths.[3]

CIPEV provided critical recommendations for reform and was followed by the historic adoption in 2010 of a progressive Constitution with a robust Bill of Rights. Since 2010, an impressive set of laws, policies and standard operating procedures have been developed on prevention and response to sexual violence. Yet, during the general elections held in August and October 2017, within a context of localised violence, large numbers of cases of sexual violence perpetrated by persons in uniform and civilians were again documented. According to the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR), at least 201 Kenyans – most of them women and girls — were subjected to rape and other forms of sexual violence; [4] however the actual figure is likely higher due to under-reporting and the fact that KNCHR documented these in 11 of the 47 counties.

KNCHR, which documented sexual violence during the 2007/08 post-election violence and noted similar patterns in 2017, has characterised ERSV as a premeditated act ‘used as a weapon for electoral-related conflict’.[5] As documented by CIPEV, the Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission and KNCHR, in Kenya, ERSV has been committed by non-state and state actors, and has targeted political aspirants, their supporters and families, and other civilians, particularly targeting ‘select’ communities owing to their geographical or physical locality and their ethnic origins, which are then directly linked to their perceived political leanings. [6] ERSV is an effort to punish, terrorise or dehumanise communities and individuals, and to influence voting conduct and the outcomes of elections, including by displacing people so that they do not vote. Across different regions and localities in Kenya, common ERSV trends documented in 2007/08 and in 2017 include targeted rape of women and girls following political unrest which forced men to flee, and targeted rape of men and boys. ERSV has also been opportunistic, fueled by a breakdown of law and order and unrest.[7] Ahead of the 2017 elections, there were mass pre-emptive movements of people from their villages due to their fear of being subjected to violence.

Sexual violence is a violation of human rights and fundamental freedoms, and in itself constitutes discrimination.[8] Survivors may suffer the long-term consequences of physical injuries, including fistula and severe vaginal and rectal injuries; sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDs; unwanted pregnancies; stigma and rejection by family members; psychological trauma, including anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder; and loss of livelihoods and educational opportunities.

Understanding the particular characteristics of ERSV is important to aid the proper identification of ERSV and monitoring of trends and patterns, hence bolstering measures for prevention and response in future election periods. In addition to the profound consequences of sexual violence, survivors of ERSV have had to contend with immense barriers in reporting violations, accessing protection and pursuing justice.