NAIROBI, July 6 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Kenya’s president on Monday ordered an investigation into rising reports of violence against women and girls - including rape, domestic violence, female genital mutilation (FGM) and child marriage - as a result of coronavirus restrictions. Lockdowns to curb the spread of the new coronavirus have fuelled an upsurge in gender-based violence across the world, with women and girls more isolated and vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, say women’s rights campaigners. There are no official statistics on the number of cases of violence against women and girls in Kenya, but calls to helplines have surged more than 10-fold since lockdown measures were imposed in late March. Uhuru Kenyatta said he was concerned by “increasing tensions” within the home, noting that gender-based violence had increased, mental health issues had worsened, and instances of teenage pregnancy had escalated.
“We must always remember that the family is a projection of the state. If the family is under attack, the state is under attack. If the family is weak, the country is weak,” Kenyatta said in a televised address.
“Therefore ... I order the National Crime Research Centre to probe the escalating cases of gender-based violence (and) the worrying trend of cases where the girl child has been disempowered.”
He directed the National Crime Research Centre to prepare an advisory to security agencies on remedial action within 30 days and start immediate prosecution of all violators.
Women’s rights groups in Kenya have for months been warning about the impact COVID-19 restrictions are having.
Social and economic strains - compounded by strict limits on movement - have not only made women and girls been more prone to physical and sexual violence, but also more vulnerable to sexual exploitation, say campaigners.
With families unable to earn an income, many girls are being forced in engage in transactional sex - exploited by neighbours, motorbike taxi drivers or other local men - just to buy food.
Local media reports have also suggested there has been a spike in teen pregnancies, with one county reporting more than 4,000 cases of early pregnancies since schools closed in March.
Reports from some regions also suggest hundreds of girls may have been forced to undergo FGM in recent months as communities take advantage of school closures and prepare their daughters for marriage.
A national helpline supported by the department of gender affairs reported 1,108 calls in the month of June compared to just 86 in February.
“We’ve seen calls coming in from all over the country and we try to support people as best we can,” said the helpline’s director Fanis Lisiagali, adding that they had to double the number of call operators.
“We get all kinds of cases - some are psychological torture, others are physical assault, rape and defilement. We also have cases of child marriage and female genital mutilation being reported, but these are few as much of it is hidden.”
Women’s right campaigners welcomed the Kenyan president’s recognition of the trend, but called for more action to provide safe spaces for survivors, saying many had been closed due to the virus and those that remained open were overwhelmed.
“It’s about time that the issue was recognised at the very top. Now, we intend to pick up on it and make sure that we hold the state to account be at police station level or prosecution level,” said Judy Gitau, regional coordinator for Equality Now.
Reporting by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org