NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Kenyan police promised on Thursday to arrest six men accused of gang raping a 16-year-old girl and throwing her into a pit latrine, severely injuring her, after hundreds of demonstrators handed them a petition signed by 1.3 million people.
There has been international condemnation of the police in Tingolo, near Busia in western Kenya, for freeing three of the suspects after making them cut grass as punishment, without charging them or investigating the allegations against them.
The schoolgirl is now confined to a wheelchair as her spinal cord was broken when she was thrown into the pit latrine. She also developed a double fistula .
After her ordeal, which took place four months ago as she was walking home from her grandfather’s funeral, she identified three of the six alleged rapists. Villagers caught the three and took them to Tingolo police camp, where the police made them cut the grass in the compound as a punishment and released them.
Rape is rarely reported in Kenya due to stigma and a lack of faith in the police and the criminal justice system, although the country has strong legislation to protect women and girls from sexual assault.
“We are aware that the young men who committed the offence are at large,” William Thwere Okello, chief of staff in the Inspector General’s office, told demonstrators outside his Nairobi compound. “We are looking for them wherever they are and they will soon be arrested and be taken to court.”
Okello also promised to discipline the police officers who released the suspects. “We are a reformed police service and where there were omissions or failures, the officers – if proved so – will be held responsible,” he said. “If officers are found culpable, action will be taken against them.”
Hundreds of protesters marched across Nairobi city centre chanting ‘Justice for Liz’ – a pseudonym for the rape victim – and carrying placards reading ‘Slashing grass is not a punishment for rape’ and ‘1 in 3 of us will be violated in our lifetime’.
When they reached the Inspector General’s compound, they sang the national anthem and hung underwear on the padlocked gate as officers watched from the other side.
Nearly one in three Kenyan girls experience sexual violence before the age of 18, according to a 2010 survey by the government and the United Nations.
In May, the Kenyan high court ruled – in response to a landmark case involving 240 child rape victims – that the police must investigate all defilement cases in a prompt, effective and professional manner.
“The investigation in this case was a violation of the Kenyan high court order,” Fiona Sampson, one of the lawyers involved in the case, told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
She said disciplinary measures could now be taken against individual police officers using the Police Act.
Campaigners said they hoped the anger generated by Liz’s case would help bring change.
“This madness must stop,” said Fredrick Nyagah who heads the MenEngage Kenya Network, which teaches men and boys to shun violence. “It has become like a norm. It is being accepted. People see violence everywhere: in the streets, on the TV, at home. And therefore they think it’s okay.”
“This is one step but we still have a long way to go,” said Nebile Abdulmelik, a women’s rights activist who launched the online petition with the international campaign group Avaaz.
Kenya’s Sexual Offences Act provides for the government to pay the medical bills of victims of sexual violence.
In Liz’s case, the Daily Nation newspaper, which broke the story, raised 700,000 Kenya shillings ($8,200) to pay for her surgery. She has had two operations and doctors hope she will be able to walk in about a month.