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Championing the gender agenda

In the wake of escalating cases of gender violence, a local organisation has been at the forefront of championing women's rights through counseling, advocacy, publications, outreach and training programmes.
Zachary Ochieng

"There are no words for rape. Only sentences". "Stop beating your wife. It's a crime". "Women rights are human rights". These are some of the eye catching messages on posters and stickers that greet you as you enter the offices of the Coalition on Violence Against Women (COVAW) - Kenya. Some of these messages can easily send perpetrators of gender violence squirming under the seats. Yet this is what COVAW has been mandated to do.

COVAW was established in 1995 as a loose network to engage in a campaign aimed at moving the issue of violence against women from the private to the public domain. "Cases of gender violence were on the rise but nobody appreciated the magnitude. Many women would suffer in silence and continue living in abusive marriages", recalls Ms Ann Gathumbi, the organisation's coordinator. According to her, the organisation's vision was to create a society free from all forms of violence against women.

It started as a membership organization with members volunteering their time through three working groups namely counselling, outreach and advocacy groups. Having been institutionalized in 1997, the organization undertook a strategic review and planning in 1998, during which the three working groups were converted into programmes, namely counselling, advocacy, monitoring and documentation, outreach and training and impact litigation. The fifth programme is publications, which cuts across all the other projects. A secretariat was then established.

The counselling programme has a goal of empowering women survivors of violence by providing women- friendly support services. It aims at sensitization and awareness creation to empower women on measures to protect themselves when confronted by violent situations. It also aims at providing a safe place where women who have been abused can come and share their experiences. The programme also aims at providing education on alternative conflict resolution methods.

The advocacy programme aims at enabling a more responsive social, political, legal and economic support mechanisms for women at the community and national levels. It also aims at sustaining public debate on violence against women, influencing policy and legislative reform on gender specific concerns through lobbying and establishment of men to men community networks that advocate for freedom from violence. In 2001, the first Women Human Rights Award in Kenya was launched by COVAW. This will be an annual event that will seek to recognize, through a call for nominations, women and girls who have shown exemplary standards in advocating for the rights of women and girls in Kenya.

As part of the programme, the organization also commemorates St. Kizito Day on July 13 every year, in remembrance of 19 girls who were raped and died as a result of a stampede in a school riot in the Eastern province of Kenya in the early 90s. The day is marked to bring to the fore the issue of safety of girls in schools.

The outreach and training programme aims at the creation of legal and human rights awareness amongst Kenyan women, men and the public in general on issues pertaining to gender violence. It includes sensitization and training workshops for women, men, youth in schools, law enforcement agents and health care providers. It also includes production of user-friendly hand- books on violence against women, drama performances on gender based violence and essay and poster competition for youth in learning institutions.

The publications programme aims at informing women, men and youth on issues of violence against women, dispelling of myths surrounding violence against women and provision of information on available services to survivors of violence. So far, the coalition has to its credit six publications, titled "What you should know about rape", "Domestic violence Handbook", "Marriage is not supposed to hurt", "Gender and sexual violence in learning institutions", "Women's cries" and "In pursuit of justice".

Since 1998, COVAW has continued to grow over the years and has locally spearheaded the Annual Sixteen Days of Activism - a global campaign that precedes the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against women and the International Human Rights Day celebrated on December 10.

The Six Days of Activism campaign has been instrumental in placing violence against women in the public and political domain in Kenya. Activities lined up this year, and which kick off on November 23, include road shows and the launch of two publications from research and media monitoring titled "In pursuit of justice" and "Women's silent cries".

On November 25, the organization will join the rest of the world in marking the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, while on December 1, COVAW will join other groups in commemorating the World Aids Day. And on December 10, the organization will join others in marking the International Human Rights Day. COVAW has already come up with a programme of activities scheduled for various parts of the country.

COVAW's objectives include promotion of women's rights by facilitating the collective work of individuals and organizations who want to eradicate violence, raising of public awareness on concerns and issues relating to gender violence, provision of women- centred counseling services and advocacy on behalf of women survivors of violence.

The organisation's mission is to achieve an alternative, woman -centred and woman friendly organizational culture based on non-hierarchical and non-patriarchical structures and a belief in everyone's equality. COVAW believes that violence against women, whether in the private or public domain, is a human rights violation. Women have the right to be free from violence, the right to self- defence and that people have the capacity to learn and change.

Managed by a Board comprising five women, the organisation's secretariat has eight full time staffers who work with the assistance of interns and volunteers. "Our work involves a lot of sacrifice. At times we use our money to seek medication for clients who have been badly battered", says Gathumbi.

To ensure success and smooth operations, COVAW collaborates with the International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA) - Kenya, Nairobi Women's hospital - where victims of gender violence are referred for treatment, Centre for Rehabilitation and Education of Abused Women (CREAW), the National Focal Point in FGM and the Department of children's services in the Home Affairs ministry.

The coalition also runs short -term projects that are within its mandate, and that seek to contribute to its overall vision. In November 2001, the organization engaged in a civic education project developed under the auspices of the National Civic Education Programme (NCEP). The aim of the countrywide programme was to empower the public, especially women on issues of nationhood, democracy, constitutionalism and good governance. This would enable them make informed choices. COVAW's project areas were Kibera and Pumwani divisions of Nairobi. The project ended in July 2002.

The organization has also developed an internship programme, which seeks to provide an opportunity for college going students to experience a working environment for a period of three months. Tasks to be performed by the interns are developed by programme officers before the interns are selected. Applications for internships are received every year and the interns are made to sign a three- month non-paying contract with COVAW.

Among the organisation's achievements is the high level of awareness that has been created. "Raising awareness on legal issues that affect women and the youth in schools at an early age will hopefully help to prevent a repeated denial of women's rights in adulthood", observes Gathumbi. She hopes that this will gradually reduce cases of gender violence. She adds that there are many cases of sexual abuse in schools and there is a serious need to address this within the institutions.

The organization also made numerous contributions to the Domestic Violence and the Criminal Amendments Bills, which unfortunately lapsed with the dissolution of parliament. In the Criminal Amendments Bill, COVAW proposed that the age of consent for women be raised from the current 14 to 16 years. The organization also proposed for the elimination of clause that requires evidence of rape to be corroborated. It also proposed that all rape cases be heard in camera. The organization also made some inputs in the Children's Act, which was enacted early this year.

Gathumbi also notes that there has been considerable change of attitude since the organisation became institutionalized. Cases of gender violence are now reported openly, with people making phone calls or simply walking into their offices. The free legal aid that they offer their clients has also attracted more people to their programmes.

However, the organization also has had to contend with immense challenges. A major challenge has been security concern of the organisation's employees, who often find themselves at the receiving end after giving assistance to women victims of gender violence. Thretas abound from husbands or inlaws who accuse the organization of all manner of "mischief".

There are also victims who come to the organisation's office with their children and refuse to go back to their homes for fear of being harmed even more. Such cases force the organization to dig into its meager funds to find temporary accommodation for such victims.

But the greatest hurdle comes when a case of gender violence is reported to the police. "The Kenyan society is primarily a patriarchal one where the man is exalted and the woman considered subordinate. Thus, when cases of gender violence are reported to the police or the law enforcement agents such as the chiefs, they are often treated as trivial and the victims humiliated", laments Gathumbi.

In spite of stiff challenges, the organizations efforts are commendable, considering that ours is a society where women are treated like lesser beings. For further information on COVAW's programmes, contact:

Ms Ann Gathumbi,
Afya maisonettes, House No. 13,
Kamburu Drive, off Ngong Road,
P.O. Box 10658 00100 GPO, Nairobi.
Tel. 254-2-574357/8, Hotline: 574359, Fax: 254-2-574253.

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