Kwamchetsi Makokha: Ending impunity on sexual violence

From Monday, Nairobi will host a pan-Africa conference on "Ending Impunity on Sexual and Gender Based Violence". The conference occurs parenthetically within the duration that the Commission of Inquiry into the post-Election Violence, chaired by Justice Philip Waki, will be holding its public hearings.

In normal African societies, power relations between men and women are unequal. When there is violence, poverty and exclusion in times of conflict and emergency, these power relations make women to suffer even more.

Yet, there is hardly an African society that has escaped the scars of strife, civil war or some form of disaster - natural or man-made. These situations have led to the lives of many women and girls being disrupted and their human rights massively violated.
Prof Makau Mutua, writing in the current issue of Pambazuka, says: "We know from the historical record that sexual and gender violence is arguably the most predominant abomination in civil conflicts and wars.

"Yet we also know that this egregious form of violence is either never reported, or rarely attracts the attention of the media."

Striking in this respect is what was noted as a contradiction in evidence at the Waki Commission on post-election violence - where women groups showed survivors of sexual assaults by the police that were apparently not corroborated by the gender recovery centres. Although women and girls rarely take active part in conflicts, they are usually the most vulnerable and are often targeted by enemy and 'friendly' fighters. Their vicissitudes in times of crisis remain unvoiced if not entirely suppressed.

'This springs from an attitude that sexual and gender-based violence acquires secondary importance in times of crisis or war. Nothing could be further from the truth.

If anything, the loss of power over one's body, movement and rights fundamentally undermine future survival. The pursuit of justice for the survivors needs to go hand in hand with reparations or compensation that enables them pick up the pieces.

This can only occur if the whole country embraces survivors with understanding, punishes perpetrators so severely that they serve as an example, but also embark on giving women and girls the power to enjoy full human rights equal to men. In Kenya, the fighting may have ended, but the presence of camps packed with internal refugees has laid numerous women and girls open to sexual and gender-based violence.

The privations in those camps, and the lack of support basic in social and economic rights all but collapses whatever other rights that exist for women and girls.

Monday's conference should be of interest not just for those who care about women's rights, but also for all those who are keen to have a more accessible justice system, a more responsive legal framework and more humane society. The region has paid, and continues to pay, a heavy price for ignoring the impunity surrounding sexual and gender-based violence in conflict and emergency situations.

The result has been the spread HIV/Aids, social strife and broken families. The conference is hosted by the Agency for Cooperation and Research in Development.

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