Discrimination and stereotypes, critical barriers to access to justice for sexual violence

Discrimination and stereotypes, critical barriers to access to justice for sexual violence


Our guest blogger, Christine Alai, is an independent human rights lawyer who has worked with sexual violence survivors in Kenya. In this blog she shares her experience and explains why stereotypes and discrimination remain the most critical barriers to achieving justice for victims and survivors of sexual violence.

Ms Alai is a speaker part of our panel event “Justice denied? Access to justice for victims of sexual violence”  on Wednesday, 11 September 2019.

“… One of the army men told me ‘climb on the bed and remove your inner pants’ I got shocked him being a security officer. He pushed me on the bed and started raping me. The army man who was ransacking the house was the second one to rape me and the army man guarding the door was the third to rape me”.

Survivor of sexual violence’s testimony to the Commission of Inquiry into Post-Election Violence (CIPEV) committed in Kenya between December 2007 and February 2008.

This was the ordeal of more than 900 victims who were raped, forcefully circumcised and sexually assaulted by Kenyan state security officers, militia gangs and criminals in the midst of the viciously contested 2007 presidential elections results. Women and girls bore a heavier brunt; but men and boys were not spared.  

2019 marks 11 years since the quest for accountability for the 2007-08 post-election violence (PEV) related sexual violence began. After more than a decade of political rhetoric, there is no evidence of any of the perpetrators being brought to book for organizing, facilitating or directly committing sexual offences during the PEV. Survivors are still waiting on their government to provide them with reparation to address the dire and persisting health, psychological and socio-economic consequences of sexual violence. Meanwhile, children born from the rape ordeals are now 11 years old.

Inevitably, lack of accountability has led to a vicious cycle that emboldens perpetrators to continue committing sexual offences without fear of any repercussions. This is aptly demonstrated in the most recent reports that more than 200 victims were, yet again, sexually violated during the 2017 General Election.  

Our experiences over the past decade working alongside survivors and human rights advocates to obtain justice for PEV-related sexual violence has revealed a critical lesson: failure to meaningfully address underlying discrimination and stereotypes that fuel sexual violence, remain the most critical barriers to achieving justice for victims and survivors.

Underlying discrimination and stereotypes inform perceptions that motivate sexual violence against women, men, children, and ethnic or racial communities. For instance, women and girls are often disproportionately targeted for sexual abuse because they are considered as inferior to men and symbolize family honor and purity. Similarly, stereotypes regarding masculinity, power and dominance cause men to use sexual violence as a means to assert their control over women, but also exposes men to sexual violence to supposedly depict their weakness (“femininity”) and as a tool of suppression.   

These stereotypes result in normalization and tolerance of sexual violence both during peace times and in conflict situations, and have a direct bearing on the development, implementation and enforcement of related state policies for prevention and accountability. Consequently, survivors of sexual violence encounter a system that lacks a nuanced understanding and effective measures to dismantle discriminatory beliefs that result in stigmatization, guarantee privacy, confidentiality and security, and ensure sufficient investments in capacity development and public education aimed at changing attitudes, which are vital to ensure access to justice for survivors of sexual violence.

To illustrate, victims of sexual violence who come forward face persistent stigmatization and ostracization by and from their families and communities. Survivors are further subjected to retraumatization in the hands of law enforcement officers and entrenched discrimination throughout the criminal justice system.  

Survivors who testified before the CIPEV in Kenya in 2008 stated that:

“The police told me that they do not want to listen to cases about rape. If it is about robbery, I should report….”

“I was told to choose between the two, either the issue of the house being burned or being raped.”

There is also a presumptuous expectation that victims of sexual violence must identify their perpetrators and have medical evidence and witnesses to corroborate their claims, in order to obtain justice. These assertions have led to botched investigations and prosecutions for PEV-related sexual violence in Kenya.

Further, while the government of Kenya took deliberate steps to provide relocation and resettlement assistance to hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons, not a single state-led initiative has been put in place to identify or provide any form of rehabilitation to victims and survivors of sexual violence. One of the victims who bore a child from PEV-related rape recently profoundly lamented:

“Our leaders apologised, and the country is moving on, but we are stuck here. We have watched people who were displaced being given land, but no one cares for us…. Our children are joining in our hopelessness as the community victimises them. Our cry has become music to their ears, and we do not understand why God has forgotten us.”

The experiences in Kenya and across the globe challenge us within the human rights and humanitarian sector to conduct a genuine introspection on whether our development initiatives or prevention, protection and response measures effectively recognize and address these underlying stereotypes and discrimination against victims of sexual violence. Only then can we ensure that survivors have meaningful prospects of achieving justice and reparation.