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‘We want justice for these girls’: The Kenyan helpline for victims of gender violence

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Kenyan market vendors practice social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19. World Bank/Sambrian Mbaabu

Around four million girls worldwide suffer female genital mutilation every year. Although it is forbidden in Kenya, COVID-19 has led some families to revive itthe traditional practice, and a UN-supported phone helpline for victims of gender-based violence in the country has seen a big rise in calls since the pandemic hit.

Somewhere in Kenya, an early morning in July: A woman organizes a once-in-a-lifetime “ceremony” for her 11-year-old niece: The girl’s genitals will be cut off as part of her cultural transition into adulthood.

All schools in the country have been closed for months. No classmate will notice the girl’s absence, no teacher will be aware and report the case to the police. The school community cannot protect the girl now.

During the ceremony, the fresh wound starts bleeding heavily. The procedure was performed by a local “cutter,” and there is no anaesthesia and no painkillers. The bleeding doesn’t stop, and, eventually, the family has no choice but to take the girl to the nearest hospital. 

‘I don’t want to see people suffering’

A few hours later, a telephone rings in an office in Nairobi. The phone is connected to the number 1195, the national helpline for gender-based violence. One of the girl’s relatives has called in to report the incident anonymously — she does not want to be considered as a family troublemaker.

“What we want is justice for these girls,” says “Steve,” one of 31 staff in the call centre. (Counsellors interviewed for this article use pseudonyms to protect their anonymity.) After receiving the call, Steve and his colleagues respond immediately. The police are dispatched to search for the mother and aunt, and a safe home is arranged for the girl once she is released from the hospital.

The helpline is staffed 24 hours a day by trained counsellors who stay on the line with callers until help arrives, whether in the form of the police, an ambulance, a village elder, a child protection officer. Counsellors arrange for health care, security, and legal aid. They also spend long hours on the phone, giving psychosocial support to callers in need.

Female genital mutilation or FGM is just one of the reasons people call the hotline. Others include assault, rape, child neglect and defilement, child marriage. The list goes on. “So many cases go unreported,” Steve says. Asked why he works at the call centre, he says simply, “I don’t want to see people suffering”. 

Some calls will break your heart

COVID-19 has aggravated the situation: “Women have been violated like never before,” says Fanis Lisiagali, who heads the 1195 helpline. “We’ve seen women committing suicide, we have heard of women being killed. Both men and women are seriously depressed.” 

Indeed, the number of cases handled by the hotline rose from 86 in February to over 1,100 in June of this year. Cases dropped in July, but the total number of calls is four times higher than during the same period last year. Not all of the callers are women. Around one third of the callers who report psychological violence from their spouses and families are men, saying they have been harassed or abused for failing to provide for the family. 

Sitting at their desks, a half-dozen tele-counsellors are equipped with masks and gloves and are separated by acrylic glass walls. Aside from Swahili and English, they speak other local languages, from Kikuyu to Luhya to Kalenjin; the aim is for callers from everywhere in Kenya to have someone to talk to. 

“You find that psychological problems come up during things people go through every day,” says another counsellor, “June.” In 2009 she became a caregiver with another organization for sexually abused girls and, five years later, she joined the helpline staff.

Some calls will break the heart of even the most experienced counsellor, says June. Earlier this year, she took a call from an 18-year-old woman who had been cast out by her father and then endured an abusive marriage. When she became pregnant and gave birth, her husband rejected her, claiming the baby was crying too much and that it couldn’t possibly be his. Having been disowned for a second time, the woman’s desperation became unbearable. She threw the baby into a pit latrine and ran away. The girl walked into a rescue centre and called the GBV helpline. 

“At first the girl was too shocked to speak. When she finally opened up, what I heard made me completely numb,” says June. She sent the caller to a psychiatrist and his attestation prevented her from being imprisoned. June is still in contact with the young woman, and is helping her build a future. “My job gives me an opportunity to give back to society,” she says. “I cannot always help, but sometimes I have a chance to help in a little way.”

A beacon of hope

The helpline is a beacon especially now during the pandemic. Many rescue centres have to turn away survivors of gender-based violence, as they do not have the resources necessary to quarantine new arrivals for COVID-19.

The helpline was established in 2010 by an organization called Healthcare Assistance Kenya, with the support of UN Women, which is still the NGO’s main partner. It is now also supported by UNFPA, the UN Population Fund. 

“COVID-19 exacerbates the already horrifying levels of sexual and gender-based violence in Kenya,” says Anna Mutavati, UN Women Country Representative. “But the helpline is saving lives. While services like 1195 are fundamental, we need to tackle society’s underlying causes that perpetuate these gross human rights violations and wider gender inequality.”

During the COVID-19 crisis, the helpline has proven its worth and needs to be strengthened, says Healthcare Assistance Kenya director Fanis Lisiagali. “In the coming years,” she says, “I would like to see the helpline known to all communities in all counties throughout Kenya, so that anybody who needs it has a place to turn to”. 

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Ethiopia still in grip of spreading violence, hate speech and aid crisis

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photo: © UNICEF/Tanya Bindra

UN Human Rights Council-appointed rights investigators announced on Thursday that they’ve launched a probe into an alleged massacre of at least 200 people in Ethiopia’s Oromia region. 

Kaari Betty Murungi, chair of the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia, was briefing the Human Rights Council in Geneva, in what was the Commission’s first appearance since its creation in December last year. 

The Commission had received reports last week of the killings in Western Oromia, as it continued its work investigating rights abuses linked to conflict in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, that flared in November 2020. 

Don’t forget Ethiopia 

Despite many other conflicts around the world, Ms. Murungi said that the world must not ignore what was happening in Ethiopia: 

“The ongoing spread of violence, fuelled by hate speech and incitement to ethnic-based and gender-based violence, are early-warning indicators of further atrocity crimes against innocent civilians, especially women and children who are more vulnerable. The expanding conflict makes worse the existing humanitarian crisis that is being experienced in Ethiopia and the region.” 

The Commission, established in December 2021, is mandated to conduct investigations to establish the facts and the circumstances surrounding alleged violations and abuses of International Human Rights Law, International Humanitarian Law and International Refugee Law committed by all parties to the conflict in Ethiopia since November 2020. 

Lack of access 

“The dire humanitarian crisis made worse by lack of access in some areas by the civilian population to humanitarian assistance including medical and food aid, obstruction of aid workers and persistent drought, exacerbates the suffering of millions of people in Ethiopia and in the region”, said Ms. Murungi. 

She added that “the Commission emphasizes the responsibility of the Government of Ethiopia to bring to an end such violations on its territory and, bring those responsible to justice”. 

Since the outbreak of armed conflict in November 2020 in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, Ethiopian national forces, Eritrean troops, Amhara forces and other militias on one side, and forces loyal to the Tigray people’s Liberation Front (TPLF), have forced hundreds of thousands of Tigrayans to leave their homes through threats and intimidation in a brutal ethnic cleansing campaign. 

The violence escalated and began to affect neighboring regions Afar and Amhara, with Afar providing the only channel of access for aid into Tigray. 

Widespread violations 

Warring parties are accused of carrying out widespread human rights violations, including massacres, gender-based violence, extra judicial killings, forced displacements, violence against refugee camps and internally displaced persons. 

In March this year, the Ethiopian government declared a humanitarian truce, an agreement that opened the door to much-needed access to aid for citizens in the region. 

Ethiopia ‘turning a page’ 

In its reply to the Commission’s report Zenebe Kebebe Korcho, Permanent Representative of Ethiopia to the UN in Geneva, said that “the country is now turning a page. The Government of Ethiopia has decided to seek a peaceful end to the conflict. An inclusive national dialogue is launched to address political problems across the country. The government has taken numerous confidence building measures”. 

The Commission which was appointed in March, is also mandated to provide guidance on transitional justice including accountability, national reconciliation, healing and make recommendations to the Government of Ethiopia on these measures. 

According to ambassador Zenebe Kebebe Korcho “Ethiopia has also taken measures to ensure accountability for alleged serious human rights violations. The Government of Ethiopia facilitated the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission to conduct a joint investigation within the context of the conflict in the Tigray region.” 

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South Africa Stands on Verge of Massive Domestic Crisis

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Russian tourists in South Africa usually go home lost in admiration, at least they did before the pandemic. Palm trees, beaches, exotic African animals and folk dances to the beat of the drums, stunning natural reserves, wonderful roads, marvelous restaurants, luxury hotels, amazing wine. South Africa produces the ultimate impression of a prosperous and stable country—both economically developed and politically stable. Indeed, South Africa is rich in mineral resources that are constantly going up in price, and it has a relatively developed industry. It regularly holds quite democratic elections, whose results have never been contested so far.

However, the prosperous façade is hiding a host of grave problems. Economy-wise, the principal issue lies in the public sector. Virtually every state corporation is billions in debt accrued owing to corruption, embezzlements, inefficiency, inept management. Eskom alone, a state corporation that controls power generation and distribution, owes the state about ZAR 400 bn. (USD 26 bn.). This is a tremendous amount for South Africa. Eskom cannot even pay interest on it. Its power plants are in such a state that shutting the power down for several hours a day for another round of repairs is a rule rather than an exception. This is not at all conducive to normal functioning of businesses and industry. Eskom’s predicament is one of the main reasons why South Africa has lost its once high investment rating.

And here we arrive at politics. Technically, South Africa can generate far more energy than it does now. Large enterprises, mines, and many farmers have long since installed solar panels and other devices to make sure they have electric power. Many offer to supply their extra power to Eskom, but the government turns them down. This also limits amounts of energy private businesses can generate. Privatization is out of the question, while it is the only thing that could save the power grid from collapse. The government is quite content with its role of a monopoly that generates power from coal and has no competition. The reasons for that are pure politics.

The African National Congress (ANC), South Africa’s ruling party, sees itself as the party of workers and the poor, and although it does not assume the name of a socialist party, it clearly prefers a government-controlled economy. Additionally, there are more practical reasons: trade unions are the ANC’s core voters, and they are opposed to privatizing Eskom and other state corporations. Additionally, they are fundamentally opposed to bringing private businesses into the power generating industry, since such a move may result in competition and lower wages that are far higher in South Africa than in countries with comparable GDP despite its 45% unemployment rate, which is an abnormal combination.

Today, the ANC is facing a choice: either in-depth structural reforms that are unpopular, or stagnation and possible collapse. The party arrives at this choice in a state of internal crisis. The ANC’s leaders and local functionaries are locked into a struggle between corrupt and political groups, clans, and factions. In the upcoming December, the ANC’s party conference is to choose a new leader or re-elect the current president Cyril Ramaphosa. At the next national elections, the elected leader will inevitably become the country’s president. Even though the ANC is losing its popularity, Mr. Ramaphosa will remain the leader of the majority party since there is no real electoral alternative. Ramaphosa’s main rivals are supporters of former president Jacob Zuma, who advances a populist agenda (for instance, expropriation, primarily of land, and introducing universal healthcare, which the country has no money or infrastructure for).

Contradictions within the party are running so high that political assassinations have happened locally. Membership in provincial delegations that will be attending the December elections is bought and sold along with votes of individual delegates and entire delegations. The delegation of the province of KwaZulu-Natal (Zuma’s province) is the largest, since the ANC has the largest membership here. Zuma’s supporters have good chances. A split in the party and anarchy cannot be ruled out in the event of one of their candidates being elected. Even if the party subsists as a united organization, a change in its course will result in expropriation or takeover of farms, enterprises, or maybe even banks. That will plunge South Africa in utter economic collapse.

If the current president’s faction remains in power, he will have to implement unpopular market reforms and attempt to fight corruption: he simply has no other agenda. His opponents will be destabilizing the situation up to inciting riots. Such riots were already organized in June last year allegedly in support of Zuma who had been charged with corruption and contempt of court. In reality, it was an attempt to show the party and the people that Ramaphosa was unable to control the situation, or maybe even to remove him from the office of the president of the party and the country. Back then, crowds numbering in thousands looted and burned down thousands of stores and warehouses, including the huge warehouses in the port of Durban; they houses commodities for the entire country. South Africa’s economy lost billions, and over 400 people died. A replay of these events amid unemployment and poverty already exacerbated by the pandemic cannot be ruled out.

From our partner RIAC

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Russia Readies to Gather African leaders for 2nd Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

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Russia gears up to gather African leaders, regional economic blocs, business community and civil society for the next summit in Addis Ababa, and that will witness another round of sparkling speeches reiterating Soviet-era assistance to Africa, outlining broad roadmap indicating possible sectors for investment in Africa. As traditionally done, the summit will be characterized by issuing a joint communiqué and finally sign fresh bilateral agreements with African countries.

Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, Sergey Lavrov, in a message to African representatives who were at the 25th St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF) in June, explained that despite the unprecedented sanctions and information warfare launched by the United States and its satellites, Russia manages to maintain the entire bilateral cooperation in working order, and in these difficult and crucial times the strategic partnership with Africa has become a priority of Russia’s foreign policy.

Russia highly appreciates the readiness of Africans to further step up economic cooperation and expand mutually beneficial trade and investment ties under these new changing conditions, he emphasized, and further offered the highly-official assurance that “the signed agreements and the results will be consolidated at the forthcoming second Russia-Africa summit.”

With the rapid geopolitical changes leading to creating a new global economic order which is at its exploratory stage, Russia has aready shown its limitation of financial capabilities in investing in Africa. It has, in practical terms, not engaged in infrastructure development, agriculture and industry on the continent. It is still remote from the African civil society with its public outreach policy, and yet to leverage unto the newly created African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).

But a careful study and analysis monitored by this author vividly shows that Russia has some limitations. Its external economic footprints are comparatively weak, policies hardly promote its template of any new economic models. The economic component is the most significant though, Russia needs a more comprehensive geo-economic roadmap strategically wielded or knitted into the broad spectrum in Africa. What Russia has can be described as ministry to ministry-centered relations.

Beyond that trend, Russia has to be prominently seen in the economic sectors in Africa. It has to project an irreplaceable role with its economic diplomacy as a balancing force and as a practical key player, and this should fall in pursuit of its desire to become leader of the new global order. The geopolitical reordering of the world cannot simply be achieved through consistent criticisms of Europe’s and the West’s political influence in their various global domains.

As Abayomi Azikiwe, Director of the Pan-African News Wire, explained in his analytical article headlined “Biden Foreign Policy has Alienated Africa: Russia-Africa Summit to Reconvene in Ethiopia” in June, Moscow is seeking to strengthen relations with states and geopolitical regions which have not condemned the operations in Ukraine that began late February aims at “demilitarizing” and “de-nazifying” that former Soviet republic.

Many African states abstained from the United Nations resolutions attacking the Russian Federation while on a grassroots level, there have been expressions of solidarity for the position of Moscow. Senegalese President Macky Sall and AU Commission Chair Moussa Faki Mahamat held talks in Sochi on June 3 with President Putin. African states are facing monumental crises related to economic development, climate change and food deficits. The sanctions imposed by Washington and the EU have had a disastrous impact on the importation of agricultural products, Azikiwe wrote in his article.

Arguably the number of bilateral agreements signed is not the criteria for measuring success of influence in Africa. But, Lavrov said that the two most important goals of the summit will be to sign off on a “memorandum of understanding between the government of the Russian Federation and the African Union on basic principles of relations and co-operation” and a “memorandum of understanding between the Eurasian Economic Commission and the African Union on economic co-operation.” (https://www.intellinews.com/russia-preparing-for-second-africa-summit-to-build-closer-ties-as-it-pivots-away-from-the-west-247188/)

According to Abayomi Azikiwe, the holding of such a meeting between Russia and the AU during this period of heightened international tensions represents a repudiation of the U.S. foreign policy in Eastern Europe as well as on the African continent. There is much discontent over the failure of the U.S. to build relationships with the AU states based upon mutual interests.

The Pan-African News Wire says the Congress Passes Anti-Russia Bill Reinforcing Neo-colonialism in Africa. The Congressional bill approved by a wide margin would target and punish African states that maintain political and economic relations with the Russian Federation.

Labeled as the “Countering Malign Russian Activities in Africa Act” (H.R. 7311) was passed on April 27 by the House of Representatives in a bipartisan 419-9 majority. This legislative measure is broadly worded enabling the State Department to monitor the foreign policy of the Russian Federation in Africa including military affairs and any effort which Washington deems as malign influence. (www.congress.gov)

Abayomi Azikiwe, Director of the Pan-African News Wire, concluded that the central focus of the Biden administration’s foreign policy has been aimed at alienating AU states from Moscow and Beijing. The fact that these international gatherings of a substantive nature are occurring portends much for the future of Washington’s waning influence internationally.

Professor Ahmadu Aly Mbaye, an Economist at the Faculty of Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar, Senegal, argued the importance of infrastructure development in Africa. That many African countries have limited access to international financing to build quality infrastructure, and Russia as a member of BRICS can present new alternatives to financing African economies and facilitate better integration of Africa into the world economy, as African countries felt excluded from the international system.

In November 2021, as titled the ‘Situation Analytical Report’ was prepared by 25 policy experts, as part of a programme sponsored by the Russian Foreign Ministry. It was headed by Sergei A. Karaganov, Dean and Academic Supervisor of the Faculty of World Economy and International Relations of the National Research University’s Higher School of Economics (HSE University). Karaganov is also the Honorary Chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defence Policy.

The report noted that the first historic summit in 2019 created a good basis for launching or ushering in a new fifth stage of Russian-African relations. The joint declaration adopted at the summit raised the African agenda of Russia’s foreign policy to a new level and so far remains the main document determining the conceptual framework of Russian-African cooperation.

That report was very critically of Russia’s current policy towards Africa and even claimed that there was no consistent policy and/or consistency in the policy implementation at all. The intensification of political contacts is only with a focus on making them demonstrative. Russia’s foreign policy strategy regarding Africa needs to spell out and incorporate the development needs of African countries.

While the number of high-level meetings has increased, the share of substantive issues on the agenda remains small. There are little definitive results from such meetings. Apart from the absence of a public strategy for the continent, there is shortage of qualified personnel, the lack of coordination among various state and para-state institutions working with Africa. Many bilateral agreements, at the top and high political levels, have not been implemented.

The report lists insufficient and disorganized Russian-African lobbying, combined with the lack of “information hygiene” at all levels of public speaking among the main flaws of Russia’s current Africa policy. Under the circumstance, Russia needs to compile its various ideas for cooperation with Africa into a single comprehensive and publicly available strategy to achieve more success with Africa.

The report, however, suggested that the basis for cooperation at this level can be provided by the conceptual documents and ideas recognized and supported by all African countries: the approach of “African Solutions to African Problems” be strictly followed, working within the framework of the African Union Agenda 2063 and the UN Development Goals 2030.

For more information, look for the forthcoming Geopolitical Handbook titled “Putin’s African Dream and The New Dawn: Challenges and Emerging Opportunities” (Part 2) devoted to the second Russia-Africa Summit 2022.

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