‘Hidden Epidemic’ of Violence Against Refugee Women in Kenya’s COVID Lockdowns

The Kenyan government is unaware of the true scale of the rise in gender-based violence during coronavirus restrictions, activists told VICE World News.
January 5, 2021, 5:04pm
A young girl waits to be tested during a mass testing for COVID-19 coronavirus provided free of charge by the Kenyan government in the Kibera slum in Nairobi
A girl waits to be tested during mass testing for COVID-19 by the Kenyan government in the Kibera area of Nairobi. Photo by TONY KARUMBA/AFP via Getty Images. 

Ayaan Dahir has been a refugee almost all her life. She was born in the port city of Kismayo, Somalia. Before she could speak, a group of young rebels captured her city. Her family sought refuge at the UNHCR’s Dadaab migrant complex in Kenya.

The camp was meant as a temporary solution to house refugees before they could return to Somalia, but few did return. When Dahir was 15, she met an older man from another camp in Dadaab who wanted to marry her and she accepted.

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“It was my decision, but I didn't know him well enough before I married him,” Dahir told VICE World News. According to Dahir, after she had their first child, her husband discovered that she is from a small, dispersed caste often compared to India’s untouchable Dalit. Dahir said that her husband began beating her for not telling him before she had his children. 

Dahir went into hiding and found a job as an in-house cleaner with a family, where she slept on a mattress in their kitchen. In the middle of a COVID-19 lockdown, she said her employer crept in the kitchen and onto the mattress. Dahir screamed and when her employer’s mother came down, he told her that he had caught Dahir stealing. His mother told Dahir that if she went to the police, they would kick her out. Nevertheless she still decided to report the incident to police, with her two children, but they asked her for around 5,000 Kenyan shillings (around £34) to hear her case, which she didn’t have. Dahir was suddenly homeless.

Around six months ago, Kenya’s government ordered an investigation into a 25 percent rise in reports of gender-based violence as the country implemented lockdown measures to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. This increase is almost exclusively from a single government helpline. As a result, many gender-based violence (GBV) workers on the ground say the numbers are higher.

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Refugee women in Kenya are particularly vulnerable as many fear deportation if they come forward and are not officially registered or do not have a state ID. As a result, their abuse often goes unreported and unrepresented in government policies, leaving it to grassroots workers to take up the burden of finding a solution.

Stella Khachina is the founder of Usikimye, an organisation that offers a wide range of support, including safe houses, to women suffering from domestic abuse. Usikimye has been so overwhelmed with cases recently, it ran out of safe houses, with Khachina having to host survivors in her own home.

Khachina and Usikimye have been able to accompany some refugees to their meetings with the police to reduce the risk of bribery, deportation, or their case being dropped among an increasing backlog of others. Usikimye has also partnered with larger organisations to help refugees claim asylum if they are in serious threat.

In recent months, Khachina has been stopped twice by police for driving after the government-imposed 11PM curfew, which, she said, happens to be the best time to pick up survivors as their perpetrators are asleep. “Every time it's past curfew I always hope we meet a good policeman who understands and won’t throw us in jail for the night,” Khachina told VICE World News.

Khachina believes that GBV workers should be considered essential workers, and given the same exemption from the curfew that medical and food-service workers enjoy. Their case would for an exemption would be easier to make if, as Usikimye has pushed for, the Kenyan government based their data on hospital records and GBV organisations, and not just on a single hotline.

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While it is hard to get accurate, comprehensive data, Nairobi’s Women's Hospital's Gender Violence Recovery Centre (GVRC) — a dedicated 24-hour hospital for GBV patients — said there is a large discrepancy in their case numbers and the government’s. “What we are reporting at the health facility is way above what the government has reported,” a staff member said in an online video series they’ve created called Unspoken Realities.

Experts believe the numbers are higher because women are going straight to hospitals, partly because they don’t trust the police with their case, while the government is tracking the issue through police stations, hotline reports, and death rates, so their statistics are incomplete.

It is difficult to know how many women such as Dahir are survivors of GBV, as the government struggles to accurately register refugees. Devon Cone, the senior advocate for women and girls at Refugees International, told VICE World News she hasn't seen too many closures of gender-based violence organisations because of COVID, but the Kenyan government’s provisions to provide services has significantly changed. Because of social distancing measures, refugees can’t be counselled in their homes, rather, they are expected to call into hotlines advertised on posters around Kenya if they want to be resettled.

Between 2007 and 2014, Cone worked with the UNHCR at Dadaab. Back then, she said, her work focused on refugee resettlement, helping refugees in Kenya submit their cases to the government. UNHCR and organisations with the options to submit those cases often have to be selected carefully, leading to a large backlog of cases like Dahir’s left untouched by both the police and human rights groups. 

Cone remembers when she was at Dadaab, refugee women felt uncomfortable going to the police so she helped train police desks dedicated to hearing GBV cases. She suspects the programme has been closed due to operational shifts to battle COVID. According to the UNHCR website, a reduced service continues.

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Her organisation is advocating for the Kenyan government to take a deeper look into the numbers of survivors. Cone notes that even for large international aid organizations, which receive millions in contributions and grants annually, that money is stretched thin for programmes that aren’t emergency COVID aid.

Before the pandemic, Dahir would ask her employer for money so she could take a bus to Dadaab to wait in a line of refugees at the UNHCR headquarters. Everybody in the sweltering heat is hoping for a chance to speak with an officer about their case. Some get there at 6AM, wait in line all day, and still never see a case worker.

The one time Dahir received an interview, she claimed that a couple of officers asked her about her asylum case before giving her their contact details to follow up. The officers have never responded to her messages. She comes back occasionally hoping to speak to them again.

In 2013, the UNHCR handed over the Refugee Status Determination (RSD) process of registering and determining whether a person who has applied for asylum meets the definition of a refugee in Kenya. The next year, Kenya suspended the programme. The UNHCR and donors helped fund the programme, which is carried out occasionally. One of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals is to provide legal identity to all by 2030 and they have promoted different digital systems for the government to better track refugees such as finger and iris scans to cut costs.

The UNHCR now only takes RSD referrals from the Kenyan government. Since 2014, international human rights organisations have reprimanded the Kenyan government for violating their own laws and the Kenya Refugee Act of 2006, that required Kenya to protect Somali refugees. Because of this, many Somali refugees don’t have ID cards, proving RSD as a powerful tool the country can wield to discriminate.

While waiting outside of the UNHCR headquarters, Dahir would chat with an older Somali woman whose number she kept. After Dahir left the police station in Nairobi, she said she called the woman and is now living with her. She phoned her after her night at the police station and Dahir is currently at her home with her two children. In GBV cases, even when survivors find refuge, they have limited access to mental health care, especially after social distancing measures. Once those measures ease, Dahir plans on taking a bus to wait in line at the UNHCR with her housemate, so her case may actually get noticed.

This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation.