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  • Writer's pictureReet Mansharamani

Understanding the sociological underpinnings of the prevailing femicide in Kenya

The Kenyan society is dealing with the precarious issues of gender-based violence and femicide against women. Widespread protests have been witnessed to instill action against such instances. What are the historical and social perspectives that seek to explain this gruesome reality of Kenya?


Women and youth in Kenya have taken to the streets to protest against widespread femicide in the country. Image source: https://www.unwomen.org/en/news-stories/feature-story/2024/02/femicide-cases-in-kenya-fuel-urgent-calls-for-action-to-end-violence-against-women

Violence against women is in no way a recent happening. However, the term itself has comparatively new origins. The Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women which came in the year 1993 was one of the very first international legal instruments attempting to define, address and redress the issues revolving around gender-based violence. The Declaration defines violence against women as ‘any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life’. Arguably, the definition is an overarching one when talked in legal terms however, in societies where patriarchy and misogynistic ways are an operational norm, legalities of such sorts will not go a long way in protecting women. This also explains why despite the existence of various international conventions which vehemently prohibit all forms of violence against women, as many as 49 states still lack a basic framework to protect its women citizens. As we shall see in the case of Kenya, the provision of statutory domestic laws is not a benchmark rule for the protection of women.


In the light of history


The recent incidence of femicide in Kenya echoes a deep-rooted history of male-dominated social arrangements. As in other third-world countries, Africa too has seen a stereotypical gendered dichotomy with males being the thinkers, implementors, or even the philosophers. Whereas the women should just “know their place” as homemakers and caretakers. Further analysis of the historical trajectory specific to Kenya points towards the prejudiced gender roles which solidified even more towards the period of resistance against foreign rule. As Mudimbe (1988) has argued that during the nationalist discourse, Africa as a whole had assumed such gender roles which required women to mainly stay obedient to their male authorities as a way of participating in the nationalist struggle. It is important to note that the roles played during such historical events often become a part of traditional narrative of a society. 


The acts of valorising the birth of a male child and mourning loss of a male are still colossally visible in the Kenyan society.

For instance, Ochwada (1997) pointed out that in the Kikuyu indigenous system, the birth of a male child is announced by an attendant with 5 ululations, while the same practice reduces to just 4 ululations for a girl child. Similarly, in the Luyia and the Luo communities of western Kenya a man’s death takes 4 days for the burial rites to be completed while a woman’s death; only 3. This might seem like a difference of just one extra day and one extra ululation to celebrate a man’s being. However, on a closer look, its practices like these that reinforce unequal power dynamics in a society. This explains why for the longest time women in Kenya did not hold any significant positions of power. What is happening today in Kenya is thus, nothing but a saturated picture of all the customs that govern gender relations and which in turn, now manifests itself in silencing those who wish to come out of the systemic unequal customs.


Decoding the present


Present-day Kenya has seen some light in terms of legal reliefs for women. The 2010 constitution which replaced years old independent constitution of 1969 was promulgated with elaborate rights for the safety and wellbeing of women. With obtaining seats for women to participate in politics, historic changes for women's freedom of movement, and equality and non-discrimination ideals, the legal framework seems quite favourable for the Kenyan women. Yet, as of the first month 2024, 24 women have already been killed in the country. Among all the unfortunate incidents, two which turned out to be utterly gruesome were that of Rita Waeni, a merely 20-year-old student who was brutally killed and dismembered and Starlet Wahu who was found dead in an Airbnb in Nairobi. Further probe into the latter case revealed that the victim’s companion was involved in her murder. 


Stella Bosire, founder and executive director of Africa Centre for Health System and Gender Justice highlights that most of these cases saw a character dissection of the victim by the public. There were attempts to establish through the popular narrative that all the victims were in some ways or the other aiding themselves by providing escort services. There are two issues when claims like these are made; one, this is a clear strategy of victim blaming which has tried to lay off the burden of crime off of the perpetrator for a long time and two, even if prostitution was the reason of murder in certain cases, the act of killing the woman for exercising her right to have ownership of her body and a right to be employed, is still by far the most unwarranted one. 


The Why


As per the Africa Data Hub, approximately 75% of the femicide victims are killed by their intimate partners. While it is true that the absolute need to exercise authority by men over their female counterparts is one reason for increased instances of Gender- Based Violence (GBV) in Kenya. Yet it goes beyond that, highlighting the complexity of a woman’s agency when she is constantly negotiating her freedom of choice within a patriarchal structure. In some cases, if the woman has internal resolve, social reserves and a steady financial system intact, coming out victorious of her stigmatic roles becomes easier. 


For the majority of Kenyan women, rampant poverty has disproportionately affected them more than men due to strict gender norms. As per UNDP Multidimensional Poverty Index 2023 37.5 percent of the population in Kenya while an additional 35.8 percent is classified as vulnerable to multidimensional poverty. Two key indicators of increased poverty levels in any country are decreased literacy rates and increased unemployment; both of which are directly corelated with rendering a week position to the females of a society by pushing them to the peripheries of informal sector. 


Research suggests that the Kenyan society is by nature quite cohesive and collectivistic which suggests that social support is not sparse. The recent protests which saw thousands of women raising slogans to end all forms of violence against women were an example of the same. These protests did not merely connote a consolidation against injustice in the society but also reflect an understanding of attaining the rightful collectively. 


As long as the authorities are unwilling to take away the burden of proof off of women, femicide and overall violence are unlikely to come to a halt.

It goes without saying that, the empowerment of women through education and employment is one of the preliminary instruments at curbing the issue at hand. Nonetheless, this is not a dichotomic fight against men, rather, feminising masculinity, as slow as it may be, will be an effective tool in a society where patriarchy is systemic. Effective implementation of legal mechanisms would only strengthen the backbone of a nation wanting to protect its vulnerable citizens. Kenya, undoubtedly has a robust legal framework but the inoperability of punitive actions makes its system as good as a piece of paper. Thus, from carrying out sensitising campaigns, to implementing resource equalising laws, the fight against femicide in Kenya calls for a multidirectional approach by refining the social, economic and legal aspects of it, all at the same time.

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