In Kenya, Stopping Rapes Is A Challenge

Elizabeth A. Kennedy, AP, June 22, 2006

Nairobi, Kenya—He was speaking at a conference about sexual health a meeting convened in part to help reduce the alarming number of rapes in Kenya. But the priest wasn’t crusading. He was trying to entertain.

Rev. Dominic Wamugunda, who is also dean of students at the University of Nairobi, tried to lighten his talk on “Sexuality, Culture and Religion” with a joke about rape. And the way it was received, and the fact that he could even tell it among a group of feminists from across Africa, offers a window onto the challenges faced by activists trying to reduce violence against women in Kenya.

“When high-up men make statements that rape is a joke, it tells you that there is a lot of political work to be done,” said Patricia McFadden, a sociologist based in Zimbabwe who attended this week’s three-day conference in Nairobi.

More than 2,800 cases of rape were reported in Kenya in 2004, and doctors say social stigma prevents countless other women and girls from even reporting the crime. Billboards warn against “human beasts” and emphasize that sex by force is, indeed, illegal.

But attempts to increase the penalties for such assaults have run into resistance and outright scorn. And Wamugunda’s off-color joke about a man who breaks into a convent and vows to rape every nun, sparing only Mother Superior was just the latest in a string of contentious public comments about rape made by officials in this East African country.

Wamugunda acknowledged during a telephone interview with The Associated Press that he made the joke, but said it was harmless.

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During a meeting in Parliament on a bill to strengthen punishments for sexual offenses, lawmaker Paddy Ahenda said the proposal was too strict, adding: “In our culture, when women say ‘No,’ they mean ‘Yes’ unless it’s a prostitute.” He, too, apologized.

The legislation passed after months of raucous debate, marking the first comprehensive review of sexual offense legislation that was introduced by British colonial rulers in the 1930s. But key sections that would have outlawed marital rape and female genital mutilation had been excised.

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Mikewa Ogada, a research officer at the Kenya Human Rights Commission, said the bill met resistance in part because its critics tried to cast it as “a strategy by women to take over.”

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