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”.