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International Women’s Day: Musings from a Kenyan lens

International Women’s Day: Musings from a Kenyan lens

By Elizabeth Irungu
on March 8, 2024

All around the world, International Women’s Day (IWD) (8 March) is usually a commemoration and celebration of achievements of women and a source of encouragement to the younger generation. In my country, however, this year IWD is taking place against the grim backdrop of increasing femicide.  Last month, we also already ‘celebrated’ a ‘Dark Valentine’ day

Indeed, it is with utter shock, dismay, anger and frustration that early January, we Kenyans woke up to the news of a young lady, full of potential, brutally murdered in a bizarre  scene in Nairobi. More in general, all media outlets and activists have been appalled in recent months by the brutality meted upon women in a wave of bizarre, yet  seemingly well-orchestrated murders  (in one instance the suspected perpetrator had a history of catfishing ladies and intimate partner violence using online dating platforms to identify vulnerable women). On International Women’s Day, we call for a world that takes femicide and gender based violence in general seriously. As sadly, for too many women and girls, it’s an issue of life and death.  

The structural link with gender based violence

As Mutuma Ruteere argues in the Daily Nation, femicide is linked to gender-based violence (GBV). In fact it’s the ‘tip of the iceberg’ of broader GBV. Underpinning these killings are ideas and norms of male power, privilege and superiority. Perpetrators are most often individuals known to the victims, usually male relatives or romantic partners. Also in the two recent cases that sparked such an uproar in my country, both occurring in Airbnb apartments, the victims had interacted with the suspected killers via online applications.

Kenyan statistics on femicide convey a grim trend. At least 500 women and girls have been murdered in Kenya since 2016, according to the Africa Data Hub – a regional network of data organizations that traces such killings based on newspaper reports. And as Mary Njeri, a GBV analyst at UN Women pointed out,  at least 10 women have been killed in the first month of 2024 alone.  

More general GBV stats are equally dark. According to the Kenya Demographic Health Survey of 2022 (KDHS), 34% of women aged 15-49 years have faced physical violence. The highest incidence of physical violence was among married women or those living with a partner (37%) compared to those who had never been married (12%).

The current economic crisis in the country, in the aftermath of the Covid-pandemic, has further compounded the problem of intimate partner violence, it appears. The economic vulnerabilities women face are often used to lure or coerce them into sexual exploitation, physical abuse, emotional trauma and even death.  The power dynamic among women involved in intergenerational relations often leaves the victims unable to negotiate for protected sexual intercourse and poverty can be a catalyst for repeated sexual abuse.  The fact that most women are weaker, physically, implies they can get overpowered in a multi-faceted manner, sadly.

In other cases, though, women in relationships or marriages are more economically empowered, leading to strained relations and power dynamics with violence inflicted as a form of assertion. This type of violence and exploitation is more rampant among the middle class and often goes unreported. Rape within marriage is also another form of violence and  has led to gruesome injuries.

There’s also a sad reality of increased (?)  incest, sodomy  and brutality against young women and girls in many counties in Kenya. Perpetrators have been found to be male relatives, mostly, among others grandfathers. 

The silent epidemic of gender-based violence and incest is still rampant. The triple threat of teenage pregnancies, HIV transmission and sexual gender-based violence has increased in 37/47 counties with higher prevalence in Nairobi, HomaBay, Siaya, Nakuru, Kilifi and Kakamega.

Urgent call for action

So let’s be clear: It must stop!

On 27 January, activists such as Mr Boniface Mwangi organised a nationwide march  to demand that the government of the day protects girls and women from the wave of brutality. Thousands of women and men marched in major cities in Kenya calling for an end to femicide and violence against women. 

The boldness with which Mr Mwangi defends the positionality and suffering of women is incredible because often men brush off such protests and do not publicly condemn femicide despite being fully cognizant of the grim realities.  Worse, some men push back online (see the ‘manosphere’), engaging in victim blaming and even making threats.

On a more encouraging note, the protests brought together activists, including prominent female activists such as Shyleen Bonareri (director of the Young Women’s Leadership Institute (YWLI) based in Nairobi),  Inyika Odero and Dr Stella Bosire. We are grateful to have young women in leadership who are very vocal on various online platforms and have even been interviewed by international mainstream media. The wording of messages during the marches was very strong and some were done in Kiswahili so as to reach all.

Kenya has committed to end gender-based violence, including sexual violence, by 2026. If we want to make real progress soon, femicide and GBV need to be addressed urgently by a multidisciplinary team: the legal fraternity, police force, medical doctors, mental health specialists, nurses, clinical officers, religious leaders, teachers, anthropologists  (some also wonder whether generational trauma & poor coping mechanisms post the Mau Mau liberation struggle play a role) and journalists. Hopefully with a multifaceted approach this societal ill can be mitigated considerably.

In the meantime, as the Constitution of Kenya 2010  under Article 27 and the Penal Code provide for penalties against women and girls, I think the legal fraternity should not mince words when it comes to this heinous act!

Online dating and true love

But let’s end this reflection on IWD perhaps with some thoughts on true love in an era of online dating.

Globally, the transition to a digital world has led to massive online dating in search of love. The desire to love and be loved is natural but there could be an increased risk of violence for those who fall prey to online sexual predators unknowingly.  The desire to land a man with deep pockets and live a soft life – to use Kenyan lingo – is luring many women into love triangles, speed dating, intergenerational relations and exploitation. The fantasy of relocating abroad has also led many women to their graves.  The fallacy that love can be created overnight with potential partners hoodwinked has led to the misperception of love.

In his book ‘In praise of love’, Alain Badiou, a French philosopher, lays out what genuine love ought  to be, as compared to what is trendy in today’s fast paced world. He proposes that genuine love exists when two individuals come together and acknowledge their differences, yet commit to an adventure of co-creation, mutual respect, sacrifice and finally a cumulation where “the Two merge as One via a child”. He states that love needs reinvention and is not merely hedonism.

Happy International Women’s Day in the spirit of complementarity, declaration and fidelity.

End Femicide in Kenya!  Protect the lives and dignity of women globally!

Asante sana!

About Elizabeth Irungu

Elizabeth Irungu is a medical doctor with a master's in public health (HS-DC orientation). She’s an elected board member of Médecins Sans Frontières, Operational Center Brussels. Elizabeth is a keen learner with curiosity and interest in medical anthropology incorporation in clinical medicine practice, geared towards evidence-informed medicine; an aspiring Implementation Science Guru with the willingness to embrace complexities of health policy and systems research methodology; and also a sexual and reproductive health advocate, with an appreciation for diverse ethnographic differences among clients, health care staff as well as health systems. Connect with her on LinkedIn.
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