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Nairobi - Activists marched through central Nairobi on Thursday to hand over to the police a petition, signed by 1.2 million people around the world, decrying the force's inaction over rape in Kenya.
The petition started to circulate after a 16-year-old girl, named as Liz, was brutally gang raped in June by six men while walking home from a funeral. Her attackers then dumped her in a pit latrine.
Liz's body was broken by the attack, leaving her confined to a wheelchair. In addition to the spinal injury, she now suffers from an obstetric fistula.
However, when the three men she identified as her attackers were captured by police, the punishment meted out to them shocked the nation and many around world.
The men were told to cut the grass on the lawn outside the police station and then were set free.
“We would like to see the perpetrators brought to book,” said activist Joan Khamla at the protest, attended by hundreds of people. “Not told to slash grass and go home.”
The demonstrators shouted slogans like “No more rape” and “We are all Liz,” as they marched through downtown Nairobi, shutting down the city's main thoroughfare on their way to hand the petition - circulated online by Avaaz - to the office of Kenya's police inspector general.
A spokesman for the police, William Thwere, said the force was aware that the suspects are still at large and promised they will be arrested, but declined to be more specific.
Women's rights activists say a culture of impunity surrounds violence against women in Kenya, where one in three women are sexually assaulted in their lifetime.
Saida Ali, executive director of the Coalition on Violence Against Women (COVAW), laments that most perpetrators of sexual abuse will never be apprehended by police.
“Impunity is condoned within our state authorities and the security lineup from the junior officers to the senior officers,” Ali said.
“Sexual and gender-based crimes are seen as trivial lesser crimes,” she explains. “People draw on culture and say men have the right to abuse their wife.”
Ali points out that the violence Kenya experienced following the disputed 2007 election, which left more than 1,000 people dead, also included many cases of rape. So far, the country has not dealt with the crimes.
Surveys by Kenya police and the World Health Organization have found a 15 per cent rise in rape cases over the past year. Studies also suggest that for 20 per cent of Kenyan woman, their first sexual experience is rape, often when they are still minors.
Women at the protest said that police make it very difficult to report rape, sometimes even asking the victims to bring proof of their claims, rather than going out and investigating the allegations themselves.
Adding insult to injury, women are told by police to describe what they were wearing at the time of the assault, as if their dress somehow could explain the crime.
“They (the police) put the blame on women and say they were provoking it,” said protester Mercy Karira. “The people who do these crimes are given lesser sentences in the courts or are let free.”
Few Kenyan police stations and rural health centers are equipped with rape kits.
In Liz's case, officers told the mother to take her daughter home and wash her before going to the hospital, destroying crucial forensic evidence. They also did not administer an emergency contraceptive.
Ali, the head of COVAW, says the justice system needs to stop blaming women for rape and focus on improving the services given to rape victims.
“(Being raped) is something that is stigmatized as shameful, and where the shame and blame is shifted onto the victim, it makes it very difficult for women to come to the police station and stand by the counter,” said Ali.
Protester Terry Kunina said she is fed up with the authorities promising to do more for women, but then carrying on with business as usual.
“We're frustrated about due diligence and procedures not being followed in our country in cases of violence against women and rape,” she said. “We've been talking with the police and the government but enough is enough. We want to make some noise about it.”