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Kenyan activists are on a mission to end gender-based violence as attacks on women surge

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Njeri Migwi’s phone buzzes incessantly. Phone calls and messages keep coming in from women seeking help to escape life-threatening situations. A mother and her remaining child are looking for a place to stay after her partner allegedly raped and killed her two other children, including a 6-month old.

Moments later, someone calls looking to help a woman who has been nearly beaten to death.

“Sometimes I feel like I am the government, because I'm doing the work that they should be doing,” says Migwi, 43, the co-founder of a community-based organization called Usikimye, which means “Don't be silent” in Swahili. The organization helps women escape violent relationships, puts them up in safe houses and counsels them on how to rebuild their lives.

Migwi is on the front lines of a war against a silent epidemic of gender-based violence in Kenya, where almost 60 women have been killed since the beginning of the year, according to the government.

She says her work supporting and protecting survivors of gender-based violence feels like a drop in the ocean compared to the floodgate of victims seeking help daily. Only in January of this year, Migwi says, 32 women were victims of femicide, defined by the United Nations as “the intentional killing with a gender-related motivation.”

“What would the government do if 32 women were killed by a disease in a month? It would declare it a national disaster," Migwi said.

Kenya's Demographic and Health Survey of 2023 found that more than 11 million women — or 20% of the population — have experienced physical or sexual violence from an intimate partner during their lives, with 2.8 million of those women having experienced this type of violence in the last 12 months.

Odipo Dev, a Kenyan research firm, says at least 500 women in Kenya were killed because of their gender from January 2016 to December 2023.

Migwi, a survivor of domestic violence herself, says she co-founded Usikimye in 2019 to rescue and assist Kenyan women who are silent victims of gender-based violence and who feel helpless and trapped in violent relationships.

She says that nothing would have prepared her then for the avalanche of cases of violence against women she deals with on a daily basis, particularly in the low-income area where she set up the organization’s offices.

Soon after setting up shop in Soweto, one of the most violent neighborhoods in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, Migwi realized that many cases of violence against women go unreported to the police. She also found that the majority of the perpetrators are never held to account, and this emboldens them to commit worse atrocities against their victims, ultimately leading to death.

Kenya made headlines in recent months after the Jan. 3 killing of Wahu Starlet, a 26-year-old sister and daughter of evangelical preachers, who was stabbed by a man alleged to belong to a criminal ring and whose members extort and rape women they target through dating sites.

The suspect, John Matara, was arrested after he checked himself into a hospital with stab wounds from the confrontation with Starlet. He has been charged with rape and murder. After his identity was revealed, seven women came forward alleging he had tortured and extorted them.

The killing of Starlet, along with those of more than 31 women in January, led thousands of Kenyans to take to the streets in the country's largest protest ever against sexual and gender-based violence.

“None of the men who killed these women are in prison ... Most of them are walking among us,” Migwi says.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, when reported gender-based violence cases in Kenya shot up by 300%, the government reactivated special desks at police stations with officers especially trained to help fast track investigations cases of into gender-based violence to give survivors justice and deter perpetrators.

But rights activists in Kenya, many of whom spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, say those desks are no longer functional and that some of the officers in charge were frustrated over poor pay, taking out their frustrations on the survivors themselves.

Activists also point at the pervasive bribe-taking culture among members of the Kenyan police, and cases in which police officers have asked victims of gender-based violence to pay a bribe for action to be taken against the perpetrators.

Kenya police did not respond to a written request for comment about these allegations.

Migwi says she sometimes feels she's losing her mind by her inability to help all of the victims. But she draws inspiration from seeing some of the women she has helped reclaim their voice, start a new life and find their independence.

She recalls a meeting at a Rotary Club last week, where she was invited to give a keynote address, and met Sheila Shiyonga, a woman her organization helped rescue in 2021 from female genital mutilation her husband and his parents were forcing her to undergo.

“I thank God for Njeri, she rescued me and took me to her safe house where I stayed with my two kids for six months. She ensured my kids went to school ... and she helped me get a job," said Shiyonga, who now works as a supervisor at a branch of one of Kenya’s leading supermarket chains.

It is the success stories like that of Shiyonga's that give Migwi and other rights activists in Kenya the motivation to continue to fight.

“In helping others I heal myself — and I find my voice," Migwi said.

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