2018 Nobel Peace Prize Award Shines Spotlight on Femicide in Kenya

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Our Opinion

The Nobel Committee announced in October that Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad have been awarded the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize. Denis Mukwege is a gynaecologist treating victims of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, while Nadia Murad is a Yazidi human rights activist. The pair received the award for their “effort to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict.”

The award is a ray of hope for those who have experienced sexual violence in conflict and those working to end it. It is also an opportunity to reflect on the recent upsurge of gender based killings in other places. It has become evident through recent events that femicide- the killing of women- has been on the rise in Kenya. Although the murders of Sharon Otieno, Monica Nyawira, and Maribel Kapolon have dominated the limelight, many more others may not have made it to prime news. This award should be a wakeup call that Kenya should tackle this widespread and horrific scourge that violates rights of victims and destroys families and communities both physically and emotionally, breaking apart the social fabric of society.

At the core of femicide, especially in cases of killing by intimate partners, is the stubborn and erroneous belief in male dominance, power and privilege over women. Despite the changes in the constitution that elevates women voices in both private and public spaces, Kenya is still largely a patriarchal society. Femicide serves a chilling reminder of the subordinate niche women are expected to occupy in our society. The raging debates following reported cases of femicide reveal societal biases against women. The debates reinforce the perception the women victims must have been openly defiant and rebellious to their male partners thus their tragic deaths. In the case of Sharon, the shifting of blame to the deceased and women in general, of being too demanding and overly ambitious in their material expectations from men, dominated public discourse in social and mainstream media. The fact that the debate shifted to how women should rise independently, and avoid or reduce reliance on male partners, referred to as ‘sponsors’ in common parlance, betrays the contradictions in our social and legal structures.

A deeper reflection on societal prejudices against women and the predominant male culture that relegates women to the private and reproductive spheres while men dominate the public and productive spaces is as good as the idea of pursuing criminal culpability of the offenders. It would be dishonest and insincere to bury our heads in the sand and imagine that patriarchy, women subordination and subjugation has disappeared simply because the constitution proscribes gender discrimination. Experience from the last eight years of implementation of the constitution, including especially women rights to inclusion and participation in public life, has shown us that the constitution’s reputation for robustness and its quest for an inclusive and egalitarian society has not, in reality, influenced the necessary transformation and renewal it sought to inspire.

If Kenya is to address the problem of femicide, then a more holistic and programmatic approach that augments the criminal justice system is necessary. A national conversation that preserves the integrity of women voices, and builds a shared and settled understanding that it is okay to for both men and women to speak up and speak out without risking unknown consequences is both urgent and important. This conversation should be broad enough to accommodate the undocumented cases of gender based violence, and capture women voices who may have suffered any form of gender based discrimination. Until we bridge the gap between the law as proclaimed and the patriarchal context in which the law is implemented, realization of the law’s transformative potential will remain a mirage. An honest admission that entrenched perception of male privilege and power over women has contributed to the rising incidences of femicide will be a good starting point when reframing and renovating societal culture to match the inclusive ideology within the constitution and our laws.

This publication therefore urges the government through relevant state agencies, constitutional commissions, and the political and religious leaders to agonize over the social triggers of femicide, and begin to organize the spaces for constructive conversations on building civic virtue and culture that is consistent the positive gains in the constitution and national laws. The law enforcement agencies and the criminal justice actors acting separately and with speed should ensure that offenders of femicide are apprehended, prosecuted and convicted. Ultimately, justice will only be served when families of victims of femicide know that perpetrators have been punished for their heinous crimes.