Home » In Kenya, women hold ‘Dark Valentine’ vigils to press for end to femicides

In Kenya, women hold ‘Dark Valentine’ vigils to press for end to femicides

Seven gatherings held across Kenya on Valentine’s Day to push for government action against the killings of women.

by Narges Mohammadi

Nairobi, Kenya/ As people around the world mark Valentine’s Day with flowers and chocolate, Kenyan women are mourning. Hundreds of them donned black outfits and held lit candles and red roses at a vigil in honor of more than 30 women who have been murdered in the country in 2024.

Wednesday’s vigil in Nairobi – which featured impassioned calls to action and musical performances – was organized by the End Femicide Kenya Movement, a collective of more than 1,000 organization’s and individuals. “Dark Valentine” vigils were also held in six other cities amid rising cases of femicide, which have captured national attention.

“Flowers are not beautiful on a casket,” says a message in Swahili on a shirt worn by many of the mourners in Nairobi.

The vigils aim to pressure the government to address the demands of the movement, which include declaring femicide and violence against women as a national emergency and establishing a commission to eliminate both.

Organizers say they planned the events on Valentine’s Day to draw attention to “the dark realities” of gender-based violence and women being killed by those they love.

“The tragic toll of women killed by their partners or family members [are] turned into sensationalized media headlines,” a statement from the movement reads.

According to End Femicide Kenya, responses to these murders by authorities and politicians “focus [on] victim blaming” and are “filled with misinformed advice urging women to be careful not to meet with strangers”.

Figures from the Africa Data Hub reveal that husbands and boyfriends – not strangers – are the perpetrators of two-thirds of murders of women in Kenya.

“It leaves many of us asking, ‘Where do we go when home is where we … could be killed?’” the End Femicide Kenya Movement statement reads.

The vigils follow nationwide marches in January in which 20,000 Kenyans took part to demand government action on preventing and prosecuting cases of sexual and gender-based violence and femicide, which they say are often neglected. Advocates continue to raise awareness and lobby for legislative change  and in light of what they say are challenges in navigating the criminal justice system.

A tedious process

According to Njeri Migwi, executive director of Usikimye, an organization that rescues survivors of gender-based violence, they often cannot access justice because of various barriers, including lack of awareness of their rights. Survivors also face frequent refusal of police officers to investigate intimate partner violence, which “they consider to be a nuisance”, she tells Al Jazeera.

For individuals living in poverty, pursuing justice can be costly too, Migwi explains. These costs include taking public transportation, obtaining medical paperwork and potentially paying bribes to obtain a police report (about 200 shillings, or $1.25).

As part of filing a police report, survivors of sexual assault must obtain a physical examination from a doctor and a form confirming they have been assaulted. This form costs either 1,500 or 2,000 shillings ($9.80 or $13) to obtain, depending on the survivor’s location. According to Usikimye, many survivors are unable to afford this fee and thus cannot document their cases.

These costs worsen an already cumbersome process that requires survivors to go back and forth multiple times between a police station and approved gender-based violence clinics or hospitals to fill out paperwork before police may open a file to begin an investigation.

“The process is very tedious … especially for people in low-income areas and informal settlements. Most people don’t know what justice looks like,” Migwi says.

The first step, however, requires police cooperation, according to Tracey Lichuma, legal counsel at the Federation of Women Lawyers in Kenya, which provides legal aid services to women and trains authorities on how to respond appropriately to gender-based violence.

“I ask [clients] if they reported to police, and they say, ‘I went to the police, and they refused to give me a form or [case] number.’ Without a police abstract, there is nothing that can be done, even if we [lawyers] want to move heaven and hell,” Lichuma tells Al Jazeera.

Her clients report that police often invalidate and dissuade them from filing reports in cases of sexual and gender-based violence. “You’re pregnant now. How will you expect this man [the accused] to support your child if he’s in jail?” an officer may ask.

A police spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Once survivors obtain a police report, they must navigate Kenya’s criminal justice system, which, according to Lichuma, is underresourced, resulting in backlogs. During this time, she says, survivors lose hope and, together with witnesses, are routinely intimidated, blamed and shamed by the accused and other community members, so the survivors refuse to testify in court or drop the charges.

In 2023, Kenya commissioned 12 sexual and gender-based violence courthouses, which exclusively deal with these criminal cases. While this move has been widely hailed, activists like Migwi say the courts are already overwhelmed and they are not gender-sensitive and trauma-informed, which can harm survivors.

A representative for the newly commissioned courthouses was unavailable for comment. However, their website states that judicial officers at the court have been trained “on the intricacies related to SGBV [sexual and gender-based violence], including survivors’ needs and are equipped to handle the complexities of such cases with utmost sensitivity”.

According to Lichuma, many survivors are unaware of reporting requirements, such as needing to be medically examined immediately following an assault and proving their case “beyond a reasonable doubt”. Additionally, numerous survivors say perpetrators bribe their way out of criminal charges.

“There are those who get headway with the justice system, and there are those who are failed,” Lichuma says.

‘We know the system’

There are multiple examples of a pattern of neglect and denial of justice to victims and survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, activists and analysts say.

In 2013, a 16-year-old girl walking home from her grandfather’s funeral was gang-raped by six men, severely beaten and left for dead after being thrown into a 3.5-metre (12ft) latrine.

The rapists were ordered to mow a lawn for a few weeks, triggering widespread outrage, protests and international condemnation, which eventually led to 15-year prison sentences for three of the men. However, the verdict and sentences were both successfully appealed, and the men did not serve prison time.

Connie Muuru has little trust in authorities after spending years seeking justice for the 2016 murder of her 29-year-old daughter, Julie Sharon Muthoni.

According to Muura and numerous media reports, Muthoni was taken to the hospital as she was on the brink of death by her boyfriend, who had allegedly beaten her beyond recognition. Muura rushed to the hospital, but when she arrived, her daughter was already in the mortuary.

Since then, Muura has sought justice, following up with police relentlessly after officers told her the boyfriend had fled the country.

“I suspected that the police perhaps helped him escape,” she says. “He didn’t have time to reach that place [Uganda, where authorities claim he is] because I reported it within hours.”

Battling severe depression, Muura prioritised her health and stopped following up with the police. She heard about cases in which survivors of gender-based violence or their family members die by suicide due to hopelessness. In response, she started a support group of 10 other women, all mothers of murdered children.

“We know the system,” Muura says. “We see that police always ignore cases when it comes to women and girls abuse and murders.”

Famous women are also part of the saddening statistics. When world-renowned Olympic runner Agnes Tirop​​ was stabbed and beaten to death in 2021, her partner was the only suspect. While awaiting trial after two years in prison, he was released on bail in late 2023 due to good behaviour.

With cases such as these and on the heels of marches, memorials, and media attention surrounding femicide, advocates are hoping to leverage momentum to enact change.

Migwi is one of them. She says Usikimye is currently seeking a lawmaker willing to introduce a bill that, according to the movement, would help tackle the “institutional tolerance that is allowing femicide to take root”.

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