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UN body decries gender violence

A survey conducted by UN agencies highlights the plight of women as prime victims of violence and abuse in Nairobi and most African capital cities.
Zachary Ochieng

In January 1999, Leonard Odhiambo, a frustrated resident of Nairobi's Kibera slums arrived home one evening to find his wife Mary Akinyi in a jovial mood. Akinyi was humming to a "Ndombolo" - a popular Congolese tune which was playing on radio. Feeling incensed by her behaviour, Odhiambo grabbed a machete and slashed her senselessly, piercing her left eye and distorting her face seriously. Investigations later revealed that Odhiambo was broke and depressed and was actually looking for an outlet to vent his anger.

Elsewhere, Magdalene Otieno, a fishmonger at Nairobi's Burma open - air market has endured severe beatings from her husband of 12 years for the sake of her children. Her jobless husband demands that he be given all the day's takings while at the same time expecting Magdalene to take care of the house budget And early September, a woman , who had been locked up by her husband in an incomplete stone house for six months, was rescued by police. The woman said her husband of 11 years, who is a medical doctor, locked her up after suspecting her of infidelity.

These are scenarios that are replicated in many Kenyan households as women continue to bear the brunt of gender violence. A survey conducted by UN agencies and whose report was released in July 2002 highlights the plight of women as prime victims of violence and abuse in Nairobi and most African capital cities. In most cases, gender violence has resulted into death, especially on the female victims.

The 139-page report - titled "survivors speak" - details cases of urban violence on women and was launched by the Executive Director of the United Nations Centre for Human Settlement (UNCHS-Habitat) Dr (Mrs) Anna Tibaijuka. The survey - the third in Habitat's "safer cities" campaign - is based on studies carried out across the globe, indicating that women experience the fear of urban violence more strongly than men. "Because of their exposure to sex crimes, women are at a higher risk than men", said Tibaijuka during the launch.

The survey focuses on women's views and perspective of different gender based violence and concludes that if no action is taken, one in every four women could be a victim of gender based violence in Nairobi in the coming year. According to the report, violence against women is hidden and occurs in private and personal spheres that women cannot easily talk about.

The survey reveals that women in Nairobi suffer from serious gender -based abuse, which is not recognized as crimes. Accordingly, the report calls for policy makers to come up with guidelines that involve the key stakeholders including men, children, the police, the youth and the justice system so as to be able to stem the tide of the problem.

The report categorises gender- based abuses into economic, physical, emotional and sexual abuse. Among the key findings is that one in every four women respondents in the city suffer from abuses. The survey was sponsored by UN- Habitat in conjunction with the Intermediate Technology Development Programme (ITDG)- East Africa. Technical assistance came from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Based on the analysis of the findings, this quantitative survey reveals that women in Nairobi from all socio-economic backgrounds are equally at risk of becoming victims of violence. This is because the presence of statistics documents powerfully and makes visible the pervasiveness and extent of violence against women.

According to Tibaijuka, the aim of this study was to provide data, guide and advise policy makers on crime prevention strategies, so that the Nairobi City Council could come up with concrete measures that could reduce gender violence within the city of Nairobi.

"The publication is designed to support the development of an effective city wide crime prevention strategy. Its audience is the national government as well as the Nairobi City Council, the police, the judiciary and civil society organizations that promote women's safety at the local level", said Tibaijuka.

The report vividly indicates that more than three quarters of the physically abused women suffer from multiple forms of abuse, while half of all economically abused women are victims of non-payment of family maintenance by their (ex)-husbands. The report also adds that four in every five physically abused women are being battered or hit with an object by their (ex)-partners. It further states that two in every five emotionally abused women are insulted and humiliated by their husbands or other family members.

The report further categorically states that one in every four women respondents had been sexually abused in the last twelve months, with one in every five of such abuses occurring either at the place of work or learning institution.

The survey was conducted based on interactions with a representative sample of 1210 women including face- to -face interviews with 195 abused women from all socio-economic backgrounds. According to the report, women in all areas of the city are equally at risk of becoming victims of violence and abuse.

The report notes that the city of Nairobi - like many other cities of the world - recognizes women's contributions as an essential component of sustainable development. "Women, however, are a vulnerable group. With respect to violence, the evidence is irrefutable. Not only do women suffer from many forms of violence. They are often victims inside what should be the most secure environment - their own homes", says the report.

According to the report, violence against women is closely linked to issues of housing, human rights and sustainable development in general. As part of the "safer cities" Nairobi project, this report sheds light on the hidden problem of violence against women and the information gaps that persist on this problem.

The publication reveals the main forms of abuse experienced by women in Nairobi, the socio-economic characteristics of abuse on the victims, the ensuing psychological trauma and the types of services and assistance that victims turn to. "This is a significant contribution to the ongoing search for local safety solutions; a common good towards which citizens, elected officials, public safety officers and the state must work together", says the report. It further adds: "Such partnerships for sustainable urban development help realize national commitments made in the Habitat Agenda and are supported by UN-Habitat's "Good Urban Governance" campaign".

Tibaijuka pointed out the fact that violence against women was a largely undiagnosed social disease. "Women suffer within the safety of their own homes", she lamented. According to her, the study shows a priority and part of the Habitat agenda. Women land rights and inheritance rights are part and parcel of security of tenure but many women are murdered by relatives while fighting for their rights. "You cannot legislate against cultural change, but can work towards cultural change", she said.

During the launch of the report, Nairobi Deputy Mayor Joe Aketch admitted that there have been cases of City council "Askaris" soliciting for sex from female hawkers arrested from the streets, as an inducement for their release. "We are saddened by these disturbing reports and as the City Council, we are going to take the necessary action. Any City Council "askari" found guilty will face the law", he said. He added that Nairobi aims to reclaim its lost glory and foster a spirit of partnership to establish a community policing forum to provide visible assurance of security.

The Nairobi City Council is now seeking to raise the profile of safety and security, and formulate regional projects supported by Habitat. Aketch supported the in-depth analysis of the extent of crime in cities as the best tool for collecting information on crime. He said the survey would only be beneficial if the concerned government, on the other hand, could commit itself to specific measures in dealing with gender violence.

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