Rape and sexual abuse is a threat that hangs over women wherever they live in the world. But in some countries that threat is more terrible because that violence is much more likely to occur. It takes a lot of work and much courage to try to change the culture that breeds it, to educate people to understand that sexual violence in all its forms is abhorrent, and that these atrocities must be prevented at all costs. The High Court of Kenya has recently taken such an admirable step.
160 girls between the ages of 3 and 17 sued the government of Kenya for failing to protect them from rape; on the 30 April 2013 the case was heard in the High Court. The girls were supported by a charitable initiative known as the 160 Girls Project, for which I am an honorary legal advisor.
In Kenya and elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, some people hold the horrifying belief that having sex with a young girl, or even a baby girl, can cure HIV and AIDS. Whatever the reason, it's estimated that only 1 in 20 rape victims will bother to report it and only 1 in 6 of them will be brave enough to seek medical assistance. Rape victims - as in the United Kingdom - are often scared of speaking out, and it's also incredibly difficult to get evidence from traumatised children who need psychologists and counsellors to help them work through their ordeals. The complaint made in this case was that although Kenya has a strong constitution protecting people from violence, and impressive gender laws which promise protection from assault, they were not being adequately implemented.
The oral decision reached by the judge on May 27th found that the police had failed to enforce existing defilement laws (as rape laws are known in Kenya) and that the policeâ€™s failure to protect the girls from this crime was a failure of domestic, regional and international human rights law. This landmark ruling is the result of two and a half years of careful legal research, evidence collection and fundraising; it is a huge victory, not only for the girls, but for the legal processes and rule of law in Kenya.
Judge Makau's judgement shows that the girls' evidence had been clearly heard. The Court found that "Police unlawfully, inexcusably and unjustifiably neglected, omitted and/or otherwise failed to conduct prompt, effective, proper and professional investigations to the said complaints. That failure caused grave harm to the petitioners and also created a climate of impunity for defilement as perpetrators were let free."
Kenya is a country with much else to celebrate, as I know myself from visits I've made. So I am delighted that its courts have taken such a strong stance against ignoring sexual violence. As the World Justice Project's data shows, Kenya has some way to go in strengthening its legal frameworks, but this is a great step towards doing so.It is also a pleasure to see my profession doing what it does best, protecting the weakest in society. May this judgment bring hope to women in all parts of the world, and for the women of Kenya may its enforcement begin to make a real difference to their lives.