While working in a rural hospital and community health organizations in Mutomo and Nairobi, Kenya through “Team Mutomo”*, a group formed at my high school in Minnesota, I was able to visit Kibera, Kenya’s largest slum. After talking with the people there, I realized just how dangerous slum life can be. Of course, I had always assumed the obvious dangers; however, the imminent threat of sexual violence against women was one realm of violence that had not been a focal point in my mind. In fact, sexual violence against women in Kenyan slums is a pressing issue that violates a broad array of human rights. Because this problem infringes upon numerous rights, it must be combatted from a variety of angles to ensure the end to not only sexual violence, but also its sources.
To assess the causes, effects, implications, and possible solutions for sexual violence in Kenyan slums, it is crucial to understand what sexual violence is and what forms it takes. In Kenyan slums, sexual violence commonly involves assault, rape, domestic violence, incest, defilement, and abduction—human rights encroachments that are founded in deeper issues like poverty, lack of education, gender inequality, or societal norms.
Sexual violence against women in Kenyan slums occurs for many reasons: for instance, for survival purposes. With the crowded and desperate circumstances of slum life, women are sometimes forced to exchange sex for shelter, food, or clothing. There is a population of teenage girls in Kibera who are forced into the sex trade just to pay for basic essentials. Unfortunately, these girls are just a fraction of a large population of women soliciting sex in order to survive in an extremely impoverished environment, a trade that exposes them to sexual violence, sexually transmitted infections, and unplanned pregnancies.
Another reason for sexual violence against slum women is gender inequality. Women placed in subordinate social and economic conditions in Kenyan slums’ male-dominated culture are subject to gender-based violence. Research has observed that men lose their sense of masculinity due to desperate economic and social circumstances, and to compensate, they express their masculinity through sexual violence in an attempt to convey dominance and control.
A third cause of slum sexual violence is politics and legalities. Politics in Kenya has always been a predominantly male field, leaving women without a substantial voice in greater Kenyan society. In the slums, politics take a particularly nasty turn. Many men, especially post-election time, feel a political vengeance if they are displeased with the election results; oftentimes, this wrath is taken out on women in the form of sexual violence. To illustrate this point, immediately following the 2007 election, police data recorded 3,000 more cases of rape, defilement, indecent assault, and abduction in Nairobi—and these are only the reported cases. Women also face sexual violence within the legal system. Many women of the Kibera slum stated that sexual offenders were often policemen, a fact which deterred other victims from reporting cases of violence.
What can be done to stop this surge of sexual violence? Promotion of gender equality and women’s human rights is one way sexual violence is being battled in Kenyan slums. The WHO multi-country study about women’s health and domestic violence against women has several proposals about this, including increased employment, political participation, legal rights, property rights, and marriage rights for women, addressing cultural tolerance for gender-based violence, and widespread advocacy for gender equality and women’s rights. However, this requires much collaboration between government sectors, organizations, and communities. All of these institutions must work in unison, and this is difficult because of the multitude of other issues that each of these entities deal with separately.
Sexual violence can also be contested by equipping women with the education to empower themselves and remove themselves from dangerous situations. A study about sexual violence in Kenyan slum schools proposes that Kenya’s Ministry of Education and the Kenya Institute of Education promote gender equality in curriculum, develop sex education programs, teach young women communication and negotiation skills, implement school counseling programs, and introduce sexuality and relationship education.
Overall, sexual violence against women in Kenyan slums is a multi-faceted problem that violates numerous human rights. Desperate slum conditions, gender inequality, and politics and legalities are all catalysts for sexual violence that ultimately result in the violation of women’s rights, rendering it necessary to attack the problem at all of its sources if there is any hope of eradicating sexual violence in Kenyan slums.
*The group now works in Zambia since Kenya is under a State Department Travel Warning.