April 24, 2008 / 12:23 AM / 9 years ago

Women still a target as Kenya's social wounds gape

<p>A woman sells vegetables near shops and houses burnt during post-election violence in Nairobi's Kibera slum January 10, 2008. To the outside world, life in Kenya may have returned to normality as a power-sharing accord drew the line under some of the worst tribal clashes since independence from Britain. But for many Kenyan women the terror goes on. Picture taken on January 10, 2008. To match feature KENYA-WOMEN REUTERS/Noor Khamis/Files</p>

NAIROBI (Reuters) - More than three months have passed since youths stormed Mary’s home in Nairobi’s Kibera slum, slashing her leg with a machete as she fled.

But the single mother of five still shudders at the thought the men may hunt her down again, rape or kill her because she belongs to a rival ethnic group.

To the outside world, life in Kenya may have returned to normality as a power-sharing accord drew the line under some of the worst tribal clashes since independence from Britain. But for Mary and others like her, the terror goes on.

“We all used to live together. We don’t know where this evil comes from,” said the 49 year old, nervously fingering the gash in her leg that has yet to heal.

With no sign yet that the rule of law is returning to her neighborhood, the Kikuyu woman fears her Luo neighbors may come after her again. She is too afraid to give her last name.

Besides more than 1,200 people killed, 300,000 were uprooted and hundreds more sexually assaulted in the wave of violence and reprisal attacks triggered by President Mwai Kibaki’s disputed re-election in December.

As is often the case, women and children were prime targets: the United Nations said the rate of reported rapes doubled during Kenya’s crisis. The youngest victim was 1 year old.

Mary, living in east Africa’s biggest slum, lost the little she had -- her iron-roofed, mud house -- and is now forced to sleep in the open air, between two ramshackle shacks soiled by garbage and human waste.

“I can’t go back to my house. It was taken over by others.”

When the crisis was making world headlines, United Nations officials said the increasing sexual attacks reflected in part a collapse in Kenya’s social order as Kibaki’s re-election exposed decades-old divisions between ethnic groups over land, wealth and power.

But even if the attacks have subsided and Kenya’s stock and currency markets have made gains since the political accord, the social wounds have yet to heal.

“There is a silent war going on the ground, whereby you have a male from one tribe raping a woman from another tribe,” said Elisabeth Muthama, a counselor at the Nairobi Women’s Hospital.

“These cases are prevalent in Kibera -- a Luo man attacks a Kikuyu woman and then Kikuyu men attack Luo women and so on.”

RAPE AND SODOMY

Advocacy group the Coalition on Violence Against Women and rights organization the Federation of Women Lawyers Kenya (FIDA Kenya) plan to petition the newly sworn-in government for compensation for women affected by the post-election unrest, especially those who were sexually assaulted and raped.

“Militia groups capitalized on that opportunity to do all sorts of heinous things to women, whether it was raping them or inserting objects in their vaginas,” said Faith Kasova, coordinator of the Coalition on Violence Against Women.

“The experiences of women were really disgusting.”

Nairobi Women’s Hospital treated 443 people in the first two months of the year, at the height of the violence. Four out of five were the victims of rape or defilement: 149 children, 193 women and 14 men.

It is still dealing with a trickle of cases motivated by ethnic hatred.

“We had cases of women and girls, who were defiled, raped, sodomized and physically assaulted -- both men and women after the post-election unrest,” said Dr Ketra Muhome.

“Lately we have been getting cases of women being raped and sodomized at the same time.”

Slums like Kibera -- where unemployment is rife, alcohol abuse prevalent and hundreds of thousands crammed in flimsy shacks -- have long been a breeding ground for attacks.

Fending for her family, Mary relies on the kindness of friends or former neighbors for scraps of food.

Like other victims of violence, Mary criticized the government for failing to stop the violence or punish the perpetrators.

“I didn’t choose to be a Kikuyu. My whole life has been here in Kibera,” she said. “We expected our government to come and see what’s happening at the grassroots.”

For other victims, the government is invisible.

“We are asking our leaders not to lie to people, saying there is peace,” said Catherine Wanja, another Kibera resident living off the kindness of friends after her house was torched.

“They are not thinking of the people that voted for them. We hear there is a government but we don’t see it.”

(Editing by Katie Nguyen and Sara Ledwith)

For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: africa.reuters.com/

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