In an earlier post, we discussed the realities of personal prevention measures against COVID-19 in developing countries. We determined that it has socio-economic implications in terms of the inaccessibility of water, sanitation, and health resources. However, the pandemic also threatens social human rights, which has been deeply felt by these communities. The restrictions and enforcement of various orders can put vulnerable individuals in unsafe conditions that range from toxic living situations to police brutality. Many of these issues are gender-related. Today, we will investigate how COVID-19 has impacted human rights and heightened violence in Kenya, and especially in informal settlements.
For context, Kenya has made significant changes in its system in the past few months to limit the spread of the virus. So far, there have been 29 thousand confirmed cases of coronavirus and 45 deaths, according to Kenya’s Ministry of Health daily reports. In response, on March 27th, officials implemented a dusk-to-dawn curfew between 19:00 – 5:00, where citizens must remain at home and are arrested if not doing so. There is also a cessation of movement that prohibits travel to and from Nairobi and neighboring counties. Some coastal counties also have this ban in effect. As a result of these restrictions, transportation and most basic commodities such as food, water, and more have become scarce and risen in price. Employment and businesses have also plummeted, which threatens the livelihood of many families. The combination of high prices, low employment, restricted movement and uncertainty can foster tension within households.
In a human rights report, most parents expressed “concerns that the economic impacts of the COVID-19 crisis on households could lead to increased domestic and gender-based violence, instability within families, and the proliferation of child prostitution and illicit sexual activities since families cannot meet their needs.” The United Nations Human Rights and Social Justice Center Working Group (SJCWG) has been monitoring the impact of human rights from COVID-19 in Kenya’s informal settlements through the use of smartphone-based household surveys.
Domestic abuse has been a common issue in Kenya even before the pandemic. In 2014, the government reported that 45 percent of women and girls between the ages of 15 to 49 had experienced physical violence, and 14 percent have experienced sexual abuse. The report also indicated that 39 percent of ever-married women experienced physical or sexual violence from a spouse. And on average, only 44 percent of women have reported or sought out help, indicating that the prevalence of abuse might be even higher.
And abuse can have fatal consequences. The Daily Nation runs a program that tracks the prevalence of home murders, collects statistics on each case, and posts obituaries for the victims. In 2019, there were 171 cases of murder that happened at home. Of these cases, 71 percent were women in intimate relationships, and 13 percent were children. Although deaths led by abuse are outcomes of extreme cases, it is still an issue worth acknowledging.
These rates could increase amid Kenya’s movement restrictions and curfew, as these conditions provide more opportunities for domestic abuse behind-closed-doors. There has been a global surge in gender-related domestic violence since the beginning of the pandemic. UN’s Secretary-General António Guterres advised over twitter, “I urge all governments to put women’s safety first as they respond to the pandemic.” Kenya is not an exception. In early April, Kenya’s National Council on Administration of Justice reported a “significant spike in Sexual Offenses” that constituted 35.8 percent of criminal matters, within the past two weeks of their statement. The council made note that, typically, “the perpetrators of such offenses are close relatives, guardians and/or persons living with the victims.” This statement is alarming, knowing that households have to spend increasingly more time together. The Daily Nation reported that the national 24-hour gender hotline jumped from 115 in March to 461 reported cases of sexual and gender-based violence in April.
Moreover, prevention orders make it difficult for survivors to access urgent support services or seek refuge elsewhere. Domestic and sexual violence has severe emotional and physical consequences such as mental illness, physical injuries, sexually transmitted infections, unplanned pregnancies and more. Those who chose to escape their living situations also run the risk of being arrested, especially during the night. In short, the ramifications of these measures can trap abuse victims with their abusers and could punish them if they leave.
On the flipside, police negligence and brutality have become a growing issue since COVID-19. The UN and SJCWG impact report indicated that “police [have been] turning away victims of domestic violence from police stations, on the basis that these crimes were ‘not urgent,” despite the surge in reports and warnings from international groups. In addition to indifference, police officers have become abusers as well. The report continued by revealing an increase in sexual harassment of women and girls, especially sex workers, by police and county security officers.
Police brutality and corruption have risen after the Kenyan government had granted police officers more public order powers. Within the first two weeks of the curfew, police had killed 12 people, which was greater than the coronavirus death toll. The police are using excessive force while raiding the streets, markets, and homes, even before the curfew start time begins. Reports reveal that authorities have also looted food, extorted money from residents and made arbitrary arrests. Those who are homeless or live in informal settlements are particularly vulnerable, given these circumstances.
One of the most upsetting cases is the death of Yassin Hussein Moyo. The 13-year-old-boy had been watching the police rampage through Kiamaiko, an informal settlement in Nairobi, from his balcony at home. During an open-fire, the police shot and killed Moyo in front of his siblings. In an informal settlement in Mombasa, a bodaboda driver was beaten to death by the police after bringing a pregnant woman to a hospital past curfew.
Many find the excessive enforcement and violence by police to be counterproductive in many ways but highlight structural inequalities that the pandemic worsens. While the government and President Kenyatta have acknowledged and apologized on behalf of these atrocities, there has been little call to action to end abuse in the future. It is unfortunate seeing authority figures oppress the public when vulnerable people need protection the most. Coronavirus has introduced another public health pandemic, violence. Although these orders are meant to protect the public’s health and contain the virus, some repercussions need to be addressed. Whether it is at home or on the streets, people are in potentially dangerous situations and need reliable support. Hopefully, with more advocacy and pressure on the government, structural changes will be made that support and protect the human rights of its people.