IT IS TABOO for a woman to openly talk about Sexual Gender Based Violence (SGBV) in Northern Kenya. So harsh are the repercussions for the few bold ones who get to speak about it, that they must go through rigorous vetting by village elders who sit at Kangaroo courts and decide whether the victim is to be married by the perpetrator or not. Sometimes, perpetrator pays the elders some token of livestock and this concludes the case. Sophia Osman commonly known as Mama (Mother) Sophia has tirelessly fought for justice.
Yet it is this noble mission that has been her nightmare. Popularly known to hundreds of thousands of people in region as ‘Mama Sophia”, she was divorced and humiliated because of her strong stand on fighting gender based violence among women and girls in northern Kenya.
Tacked on a wheelchair following an arthritis attack is not stopping the 53-year-old mother of three from her GBV activism any time soon. Her verve and vigour is unstoppable.
Northern Kenya which is largely inhabited by Kenyan Somalis who are Muslims faces many forms of GBV; early marriages, female genital mutilation and rape among others.
These forms of abuse drove Osman who was working as a civil servant back in early ‘90s to start advocating for the rights of women and girls.
Osman confesses that it has not been easy journey. “I was stabbed with a knife, faced all forms of discrimination and above all my husband divorced me just because I am fighting for the rights of women and girls who are raped,“ recounts Osman, who was born and brought up in Township location of Wajir East District.
She works on voluntary basis where no one pays her, passion drives her.
She shares: “Fighting GBV in this region is a tough war, women are viewed as lesser beings, they cannot talk before men, they are there to be seen and not heard.”
She confirms how FGM is held sacred by the community. People view it as a very sensitive topic to talk about and women who have not undergone FGM get discriminated against; they cannot get married. No man is willing to pay dowry or even attempt to marry any woman who has not undergone the cut.
“I educate women on dangers of FGM to their daughters; some have accepted to do away with it but there are those who still hold onto it, it will take time but one day we will win this war,” explains Sophia.
Based on such cultural norms, when Osman stood her ground and started educating women on rape issues, she became an enemy to many men. They viewed her as an inciter and a woman who is not respecting her culture.
She witnessed the climax of violence 21 years ago when she was involved in training women using drama skits in the villages.
Sophia recalls: “I mobilised women in different villages in Wajir county and trained them on GBV using drama. It was a useful tool that passed the message across. Many women started coming out and reported cases of rape. Predictably, that did not please many so they ganged up and attacked me when I was coming from one of my trainings. They stabbed me on the face and hands, I survived by the mercy of God.”
Osman observes that there are many cases of GBV in her home county of Wajir, a good example is when a woman was stabbed on the cheek with a knife by her husband. It took her intervention and other activities for the lady to get some form of justice.
“One of the biggest challenges of rape victims in Wajir is the lack of a forensic laboratory to help in scientific analysis of forensic evidence. Wajir County does not have any laboratory to do DNA analysis. Some rape perpetrators who sire children with their victims are ordered to do a DNA test and we do not have the facilities here, we have to travel all the way to Nairobi to access them,” Confirms Wickline Wanjala, Crime officer, Wajir County.
Wanjala who works closely with Osman and other stakeholders at the Gender Technical Working Group which is under the Mercy Corps BRACED program funded by the UK government work together in lobbying for the government of Kenya and other non – state actors to respond to gender issues in Wajir County.
Through the program (since its inception in in 2015), they have handled 21 cases of defilement of children ranging between 4 – 16 years. Nine of the cases the perpetrators are serving jail terms while the rest are still in court. They have also set up a helpline for victims to call when they need help.
Osman together with her team, have pointed out areas of quick intervention in fighting GBV. They say lack of safe houses for victims is also a challenge. Lack of witnesses and dragging of the cases at the courts also hinders victims to access justice.
I am optimistic that one day we will have a GBV free Wajir.
Kenya’s Sexual Offences Act 2006 clearly makes provisions about sexual offences, their definition, prevention and the protection of all persons from harm from unlawful sexual acts. The Act recognises new forms of sexual offences, consolidates and expands the traditional sexual offences, requires the harmonisation of regulations where an offence is provided for in more than one act and harmonises inter-sectoral collaboration in the prevention, detection, prosecution and punishment of sexual offences.
Osman says implementation of this law faces many huddles in Wajir County where she is an activist.
“I am optimistic that one day we will have a GBV free Wajir-a place where women will feel safe and access justice, “she concludes.