We need your help now

Support from readers like you keeps The Journal open.

You are visiting us because we have something you value. Independent, unbiased news that tells the truth. Advertising revenue goes some way to support our mission, but this year it has not been enough.

If you've seen value in our reporting, please contribute what you can, so we can continue to produce accurate and meaningful journalism. For everyone who needs it.

seeking justice

'I'll give you a goat and then you can forget about the rape'

In certain areas of Kenya, slaughtering an animal or paying a €20 fine is the punishment for rape.

Órla Ryan reports from Kenya

IF A WOMAN’S rights are violated, even if she is raped, people will go to the local chief and they’ll want to settle the case. They will say, ‘I’ll give you a goat and then you can forget about this.’ But now women know their rights, they want to go to court.

Michael Mwakazi, an activist who promotes women’s rights in Kenya, describes how serious crimes such as rape are often ‘resolved’ informally, rather than through the justice system. 

He and others are working to end this practice, known as ‘mashla’, and help reduce sexual and physical violence against women and girls. 

IMG_1791 Michael Mwakazi Órla Ryan Órla Ryan

In the past, when a woman reported her partner or husband to police if he was physically or sexually violent, the case was often not taken seriously – it was seen as a domestic issue that should be resolved within the family.

This type of reaction is now less common, but still happens. recently travelled to Kenya to explore this and other women’s rights issues. 

About two in every five women in Kenya have experienced physical and/or sexual violence at the hands of a partner, while a quarter of women have experienced this in the last 12 months.

In many parts of the country, such cases are resolved informally through the involvement of a local chief or elder. The perpetrator is often fined a small fee or ordered to slaughter an animal and give the meat to the victim’s family.

IMG_2827 Many people, often women, have to walk several kilometers to get water for their families Órla Ryan Órla Ryan

Mashla is quite common in rural areas. Across the country, more and more women’s groups are forming with the aim of supporting survivors of gender-based violence (GBV), sexual violence (SV) and female genital mutilation (FGM), and preventing it from happening to other women and girls.

Many such groups are part of Sauti Ya Wanawake – which means the ‘voice of women’ in Swahili, and has thousands of members in various regions. recently travelled to Taita-Taveta County in southern Kenya to meet Sauti members and supporters.

Lydia Mwamberi is the chairperson of Sauti’s Wundanyi branch, which was founded in 2010.

_MG_1501 Sauti members including Lydia (second from right) pictured outside their office Órla Ryan Órla Ryan

It initially had just a handful of members but this figure has grown to about 70, including a few so-called ‘male champions’. Lydia says the branch was established in response to the amount of GBV, SV and FGM cases in the area.

“There were many cases of violence not being reported, that’s why we started. Violence, defilement, rape, sodomy – they were all very common. Women were not allowed to make any decisions. Many of them were doing all the chores, like a donkey, in their household.”

The group met a lot of resistance and, in some cases, still does. “It was a very small movement at the start. We were afraid and isolated, there were a lot of obstacles. We were branded, we were given names – harlots, told we were breaking up families, that we must have no husbands of our own,” Lydia recalls.

IMG_1516 Sauti's office in Wundanyi Órla Ryan Órla Ryan

Nevertheless, they persisted in raising awareness of women’s rights. Initially this happened through word of mouth and informal meetings. The branch now receives support from ActionAid Kenya, enabling it to train its members and reach a wider audience – including men.

“Things are beginning to change. Men are talking to men about women’s rights. The men we are working with are not scared because they understand the work we are doing and have confidence in it,” Lydia says.

A goat or a fine 

People who live in poorer communities face many obstacles when seeking justice if they have been the victim of a crime. Many cases are never reported to the police or ‘resolved’ via mashla.

Michael, who works with Sauti to reach men in the area, explains: “Even if a woman is raped, people will go to the chief and they’ll want to settle the case. They will say, ‘I’ll give you a goat and then you can forget about this.’” Alternatively, rapists may be fined the equivalent of about €20. 

However, as more women and men learn about human rights, Michael thinks there will be an increase in the amount of people who reject mashla and instead push for court proceedings to happen.

_MG_1438 Caroline Nkirote, Women’s Rights Officer with ActionAid Kenya, and local government officials who work in the Gender Department Órla Ryan Órla Ryan

Caroline Nkirote, Women’s Rights Officer with ActionAid Kenya, adds that in rape cases there is often “a push to say that the woman is the one who called it upon herself, ‘maybe she was wearing a mini skirt, that’s why she was raped’” – a narrative not exclusive to Kenya. 

Even in instances where the victim wishes to bring the case to court, this often never happens for practical reasons, such as the fact they can’t pay for transport to and from court.

Lydia says many people are simply “not able to afford” justice. Sauti – alongside ActionAid and the local government – helps victims of crime financially, where possible. If a case makes it to court, members attend in solidarity with the victim.

gbv index sauti Sauti Ya Wanawake Sauti Ya Wanawake

Sauti has created a crime index based off data collected from local police stations. The branch keeps a record of reported crimes and follows up with police, pushing for cases to be brought to court.

Lydia lists off some of the prison sentences that have been handed down recently, telling us:

“One man was sentenced to life in prison for defilement of a 14-year-old girl who has special needs. In February, another man was sentenced to 14 years for defiling an 11-year-old girl.”

Texting for help

Julia Mwambisi, a Sauti member, tells us she wanted to join the group because she “saw a lot of women who were suffering, especially at the hands of their husbands, and the children were also suffering”.

“I wanted to help women and make sure they knew their rights, a lot of them didn’t.” Julia says her own husband is not violent and supports her work. Women who need help are encouraged to call or text a Sauti member.

IMG_1445 Órla Ryan Órla Ryan

When they are made aware of an alleged crime, members visit the house in question – even if it’s in the middle of the night. Julia’s husband often goes with her for safety reasons.

“When I go to rescue a woman, when the man sees my husband is with me he knows that I have security so he calms down and then we can have a conversation. He sees I have another man with me who is there to protect me. I’d be afraid if I went by myself that the man might be angry and could be abusive to me too.”

Julia says people in the community are aware of Sauti and know if their members are involved, a crime is likely to be taken more seriously.

“They know that we are Sauti members and we fight for women’s rights. When they see that it is Sauti women who have come, the husband, most of the time, will calm down or may even be scared because defenders of rights have arrived.”

_MG_1644 Sauti member Emariline Mwasi Órla Ryan Órla Ryan

In most cases, Sauti members inform the police of what has happened and follow up to ensure the case is being taken seriously. Julia says some men “run away and hide” once the police become involved but adds: “We follow them and make sure they are prosecuted.”

Tampering with evidence

Caroline says the legal process can be slow, and that corruption and bribery are often evident. She says members of the police force sometimes try to delay a serious case from going to trial, or tamper with evidence.

Police may be aware that the mother of a girl who has been defiled is illiterate and they might tamper with evidence or a statement, and when it is read in court the person is being charged for a different thing. For example, they could reduce sexual assault to physical violence.

“What we’ve been training the women to do is to be able to request a copy of the report or to take a photo of what has been written so you are able to know what the policeman is going to say in court.”

ActionAid has trained police officers in the area so they are better equipped to handle sensitive cases, and some stations now have a dedicated gender desk. “We should hopefully see changes as a result,” Caroline adds.

IMG_1714 Maulid Hiribae Morowa Órla Ryan Órla Ryan

Maulid Hiribae Morowa, a police officer in nearby Kishushe, was among those trained by ActionAid. He says it was the first time he received training specific to gender-related issues. Maulid says some police officers still believe that domestic violence should be solved within the family.

However, most of the officers he knows are not like this. “Let’s say a husband has assaulted his wife, that’s a police case – it’s not for a family to solve. It is against the law. When you report it to our office we don’t recognise you as husband and wife, we recognise you as a complainant and a defendant,” he tells us.

“There is a big difference between now and a few years ago in terms of how police officers handle domestic disputes. In the past, a police officer may have asked a woman, ‘Why are you reporting your husband?’ Nowadays people know their rights.”

Criminals crossing the border

Violence is common in Kishushe, Maulid says, telling us: “In the 10 years I have been working, this is the worst place for sexual and physical violence against women.”

He and another officer are stationed in the village and do not have access to a vehicle. As a result, some perpetrators have avoided being arrested – a source of great frustration for him.

_MG_1804 Kishushe Órla Ryan Órla Ryan

Maulid recalls one occasion where a man allegedly raped a young girl. She was brought to hospital and later made a statement to police. In the meantime, the man ran away.

“After he raped the girl, his relatives arranged for him to hide in Voi (a nearby town). A few days later we found out through Sauti that the man was being transported via Kishushe to cross the border into Tanzania. We wanted to ambush him,” Maulid tells us. 

He says police tried to get access to a vehicle but were unable to do so in the short time period they had. The man escaped and hasn’t been heard of since. Police have spoken to the man’s family in a bid to locate him, but Maulid said they are not willing to cooperate.

Escaping a violent marriage  

Mary Saleka is the chairperson of the Sauti branch in Kishushe. She escaped a violent marriage and wants to help women in the same situation.

IMG_1701 Mary Saleka, chairperson of the Sauti branch in Kishushe Órla Ryan Órla Ryan

“I left my husband because he used to beat me, I used to sleep outside when he came home, I remember two nights I slept in the toilet [outside the house] because he chased me out of the house.” Mary says her husband was also psychologically abusive to her and their six children.

On one occasion, shortly before she left him, she says her husband beat her up so badly  she reported him to the police. The case went to trial and her husband faced two months in jail or a fine of 15,000 Ksh (about €130). His relatives paid the money and he walked free.

IMG_2105 Goats on Mary's farm Órla Ryan Órla Ryan

Mary moved her children to Kishushe after this happened and has provided for them through the income she makes as a farmer.

ActionAid pairs up self-sufficient women like Mary with so-called ‘hard to reach’ women who are living in poverty. Mary mentors a number of women, teaching them how to grow vegetables so they can earn their own money.

IMG_2053 Defence, one of the women Mary mentors Órla Ryan Órla Ryan

Last year, she made over 200,000 Ksh (€1,700) from growing and selling vegetables – a good wage in the area. However, a prolonged drought will likely impact her profit this year.

_MG_1883 Celestina Samba; Sauti helped her and her children return to their home following a dispute with her late husband's family Órla Ryan Órla Ryan

Sauti also helps women involved in disputes over property and land. Women are often denied the right to own land.

If a woman’s husband dies, her in-laws often try to kick her and her children out of the family home they shared with him. The group has helped a number of women gain or retain ownership of property.


Mary Mngola, a gender officer with the local government, is among those pushing for more funding to be given to women’s rights projects. She tells this can be a fraught process. 

“When our colleagues start to fight us we say: ‘You are denying your wife, you are denying your mother, you are denying your daughter.’ That gets through to them,” she says.

About 2 million KSh (€17,000) was ringfenced to be spent on gender-related issues across a number of departments in the county in 2018-2019. The budget for the coming 12 months has not yet been finalised amid an ongoing debate over how much money should be allocated. 

IMG_1410 Clarice Munyambo Órla Ryan Órla Ryan

Clarice Munyambo, who is a County Executive Committee member, says members of the public are encouraged to take part in pre-Budget meetings where they can make their case for funding to be spent on a particular initiative. “We need to be able to help the ladies on the ground, in terms of what they are experiencing,” she says.

Part of the budget is spent on training women in skills such as basket weaving and sewing so they can generate their own income.

“One of the main rights violations against women is them being denied money by their husbands or families. Through these programmes women are empowered and they’re able to get their own money so that they can educate their children without depending on anyone else,” Mary adds. 

FGM during childbirth 

FGM is also an issue in the area, with many girls undergoing the procedure as newborns. The practice involves the ritual cutting or removal of some or all of the clitoris and the labia for non-medical reasons.

In Kenya, about one in every five females aged 15-49 have been cut, according to the United Nations. Many people believe that if a girl is not cut she is unfit for marriage and could become a prostitute. Others believe the procedure must be carried out for religious reasons – a myth organisations like ActionAid are trying to dispel.

FGM rates have declined in Kenya in recent years. However, it is still common in several areas. Garissa, for example, has a prevalence rate of over 90%.

Kenya outlawed FGM in 2011. A person convicted of causing death by performing FGM could be sentenced to life in prison and fined 200,000 Kenyan shillings/KSh (about €1,740). However, prosecutions are rare.

A minority of doctors still carry out the practice – with some even campaigning for it to be made legal once more. However, FGM is generally carried out by traditional cutters (almost always women) who use unsterilised razor blades and knives. Many of those who are cut suffer from lifelong complications – both physical and mental.

IMG_1442 Órla Ryan Órla Ryan

Caroline says FGM is “how the patriarchy perpetuates itself, it’s about controlling women”, adding: “The most unfortunate thing is it’s done by women. It’s done by women to women for men.”

The age at which girls are cut varies. Girls in Kishushe are often cut as newborns, while some women are cut without their consent during childbirth. Mary Saleka tells us: “Here the child is circumcised when they are about one week old. They use a fingernail to pinch her skin and remove it.

For women who are not circumcised when they are younger, if your mother-in-law realises this, you are forced to get circumcised – often when you are giving birth … They don’t ask the woman, they know she is already in pain – they will just say it was excess bleeding from the birth.

Engaging men 

As part of its Women’s Rights Programme, which runs in Kenya, Ethiopia and Nepal, ActionAid uses the ‘behaviour change’ model that was developed in partnership with University College London’s Centre for Behaviour Change.

The process analyses why people behave in a certain way, and attempts to create long-term strategies that tackle harmful behaviour. An imperative part of the programme is its outreach to men and boys.

_MG_1723 Some of Sauti's male champions in Kishushe Órla Ryan Órla Ryan

Michael Mwakazi, one of Sauti’s male champions in Kishushe, says some men are “reluctant” to engage with the group because “they are so engrossed in a culture and tradition where the woman’s role is perceived to be in the kitchen”.

‘Your role is in the kitchen, your role is to serve me. I am the master. What I say goes, whether you like it or not.’ It is hard for some men to let go of that view.

“If a man tells me their wife’s place is in the kitchen, I ask them, ‘If she is sick, will you die of hunger? No, you will go and cook.’” Michael says he was never physically violent but used to mistreat his wife in other ways.

“I used to overwork my wife, I used to make her do all the chores. I would tell her I could come home any time I wanted and I didn’t have to tell her where I was, that it was my business – but when she went out she had to seek permission from me.”

IMG_1810 Iron ore mining is big business in Kishushe - a welcome source of income for some, but others have concerns about the impact the industry has on the environment and people's health Órla Ryan Órla Ryan

Michael says his approach to marriage caused many arguments with his wife, and over time he realised he was being a poor role model to their three children and started to change his ways. Michael says that as more men begin to change, others start to pay attention.

He is one of over 20 men in the area who facilitate workshops for other men in a bid to promote gender equality and reduce violence against women. Hundreds of men have attended such sessions in Kishushe and nearby areas. “Some men are resistant but we are making progress,” he tells us. 

Boys copying their fathers

Michael believes that most men who disrespect or abuse their wives are copying the behaviour of their father.

They saw their father beating their mother. Some men actually believe that if you don’t beat your woman, then there is no love.

He acknowledges that this theory seems nonsensical, but says some men genuinely think this way.

Peter Mwangeni, another male champion, agrees that violence is often learned behaviour. “Boys practice what they see their fathers doing. You watch children play games where they pretend to be a father and mother, it’s very interesting.

“You’ll see the young boys showing authority, saying, ‘Now I’m the father, now you have to do this.’ Even if you don’t know the father, you can see how he behaves at home. It’s learned behaviour, the boys are already becoming abusive when they are still young.”

IMG_1746 Peter Mwangeni Órla Ryan Órla Ryan

Peter says this example highlights why male champions need to tell other men and boys why this is “not the right way to behave”. ActionAid runs school forums where facilitators teach children about their rights and create a safe space for them to report if they have been harmed in any way.

As a result of these forums, a number of children have disclosed abuse.

“There are so many cases (of abuse) but children fear their parents. They fear the dad so sometimes they tell their mother, who tells them to keep quiet about it so their father won’t go to jail. Now it’s easier for them to report to their teacher or someone else,” Michael notes.

‘I used to beat my wife’

Joakim Mwadime, who received training via Sauti and ActionAid, says he is living proof that people can change their ways.

“I used to drink a lot. I used to be violent, I used to beat my wife. I regret it.” Joakim says he feels guilty about how he used to treat his wife, but all he can do now is try to make amends and stop others from behaving the same way.

_MG_1761 Joakim Mwadime Órla Ryan Órla Ryan

“When I used to drink, I was stressed all the time. Through the training, I started to see the benefits of changing my behaviour. Slowly but surely, I changed.” Joakim says many of the men he used to associate with when he was still drinking are reluctant to talk to him now.

“After I stopped drinking they became afraid of me. They see this change in me, and they are not ready for change. It has been difficult, it is not easy for them to come to me so I go to them. I try to educate them about the benefits of changing their ways.

“I have changed. I want other people to see that and learn from my mistakes.”

This article is the second in a three-part series supported by the Simon Cumbers Media Fund. Read the next installment tomorrow.

simon c

Readers like you are keeping these stories free for everyone...
A mix of advertising and supporting contributions helps keep paywalls away from valuable information like this article. Over 5,000 readers like you have already stepped up and support us with a monthly payment or a once-off donation.

Your Voice
Readers Comments
This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
Leave a Comment
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.

    Leave a commentcancel