Kenya's department of gender says reported cases of gender-based violence have nearly quintupled during the COVID-19 pandemic. But activists say that stigma and fear associated with reporting abuse means the real number of cases is many times higher.
Jackline Karemi recalls the day in April when her partner of nearly a decade suddenly accused her of having an affair and attacked her.
"We wrestled, he was trying to strangle me and pull me back to the bedroom so that he could lock the door. But I managed to get out of the room. He wanted to push me off the fifth floor. I hit him. Then he started slashing my face and head with the Masai sword."
Karemi’s was among more than 5,000 reported cases of gender-based violence in Kenya over the past year as emotional and work stress mounted during the COVID-19 pandemic.
That’s nearly five times the number of reported cases in 2019, according to an April survey by Kenya’s Department of Gender.
But Kenya’s women’s rights campaigners say the majority of cases go unreported, says Vivian Mwende, a counselor at the Federation of Women Lawyers Kenya.
"Reporting will cause shame – ‘I’ll fight with my parents.’ Another thing could be that nobody will believe me, because this person is reputable - could be a chief, could be anybody, this person is reputable in this area. So, a lot of trust has been [lacking], especially with the reporting system. Most of the victims believe they are not going to be heard," Mwende said.
To encourage gender-based violence survivors to speak out, Kenya’s women’s rights defenders hold open forums. The organizer of one such forum, Rachael Mwikali of the Grassroots Human Rights Defenders, explains why.
“The reason why we are having this fellowship is to try to bring more women and human rights defenders and activists and feminists that are able to talk against any form of violence against women and girls and any form of violence when it comes to human rights violation[s]."
Kenyan authorities are running a campaign called “Komesha Dhulma,” meaning “stop violence” in Swahili.
The goal is to motivate the public to report cases of gender-based violence. An official at the department of gender, Beatrice Elachi, is leading the campaign.
"For us to achieve even to start talking about it, to make it open for people to come out, for women to come out, we have to have a holistic approach, on how do we indeed deal with gender-based violence. Dealing with it is not taking people to court alone or fighting it the way we want to fight it, we have to go back even in the church, because some of these people are people who go to church, some of them to the mosque," Elachi said.
As COVID-19 continues to take its toll on families, gender-based violence survivors like Karemi can only hope more people speak out against what many now call a pandemic within a pandemic.