“Last year some parents came to REEP (Rural Education and Economic Enhancement Programme - Kenya) to ask for help. Their daughter’s teacher had been having sex with girls at school. He was HIV positive and three of his victims had tested positive too. The eldest was just 13. So REEP pushed the police to arrest and charge the perpetrator. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident in our community. If anything, it’s emblematic of the challenges we face here on a daily basis. And it is one of the reasons why I decided to set up REEP back in 1997.”
Twenty years ago, while working as a local journalist in Busia county Kenya, Mary saw firsthand the problems that plagued her community. Busia was gripped by an HIV epidemic and many parents were dying of AIDS leaving their children, particularly their daughters, vulnerable.
Left unprotected in a poor community, and exacerbated by the HIV outbreak, many of these children fell prey to sexual exploitation and abuse. Children were defiled (raped) and nothing was done. Perpetrators walked free. Many stopped going to school and became embroiled in prostitution and child labor, tragically continuing the cycle of HIV. Mary saw that nothing was being done - the children had no protection or access to justice. After learning of the rape of a one-year-old baby, she took a stand. Enough was enough.
She founded REEP and has been fighting for justice for Kenyan women and girls ever since.
Mary says early on, a lack of education about the rights of a child, coupled with a fractured judicial system and poverty, meant that many in the community had no idea that going to court would even be an option. Even with cases of incest, the violation would often be deferred to village elders who would deal with the problem.
“The phrase used locally is to ‘finish it’ – the perpetrator would bribe the family by giving them a goat, some maize, a small bit of money. To finish the issue so no further action would be taken.”
People didn’t understand how to navigate the system to get justice, so educating the community and counselling victims became a large part of REEP’s work.
“A perpetrator can be arrested and pay to end the matter, then files go missing, evidence isn’t collected, court cases are adjourned. When someone wants to make a complaint the police have to fill out a P3 form. Sometimes the police would say they didn’t have copies. It is supposed to be free but some police started charging 2,000 shillings. Poor families could not afford it and the cases were dropped.”
With help from Equality Now, REEP has trained over two hundred paralegals who are able to provide free legal advice and support through the legal process. They also assist families with practical issues like witness preparation and paying for their travel to court, which they might otherwise not be able to afford.
As a woman speaking out in a patriarchal society, Mary also faces a great deal of hostility and has often been at odds with her community. She says people tell her that she is, “very cruel and unforgiving; [people say] that Mary hates me; Mary is imprisoning men; Mary is making women very rude because we were now talking about gender based violence.” But she refuses to let that stop her - even when her personal security is threatened.
“Some of the stories haunt you for some time...when institutions which are supposed to be doing the right thing turn against you, it hurts. But when I hear a child has been abused, I look at them and think, ‘I must help you.’ It gives me strength.”
It was one of these stories that brought Equality Now and REEP together. Our work with Mary all began with Liz, a 16-year-old girl who was gang raped and dumped in a pit latrine in June 2013. The rapists “punishment” was to cut the grass of the police station. Together with a coalition of partners, Liz’s case got international attention and spurred legal action to fight sexual violence in Busia County.
Today, Liz is determined to use her experience to help others. She recently told Equality Now that she wants to study medicine, “The doctor who took care of me after I was gang raped saved my life, I want to do the same for other girls who might find themselves in my position.”
Never give up
After two decades of work in the region, Mary has heard so many harrowing stories of abuse and still has many sleepless nights. But she has the support of her staff to keep her motivated.
“We call it the REEP family,” she says, “We stand up for each other. I do the little I can do at my own level, I thank god that I have REEP to enable me to do what I can do to help.”
“Women who are too poor to break their chains of bondage. Women who have given up and surrendered to negative self-image and low self-esteem. Today, these women and girls are able to speak out and demand their integrity and rights. The media, including international media, continues to do a superb job in highlighting issues of violence against women in Busia County and I am glad that county leaders are slowly joining the cause and speaking against violence on women.”
“People fear speaking but they will report to REEP. They have asked if we can help, will tell what has happened. People are now being told to go to Busia because we will help them.”
And it’s not just adults who are coming forward to report abuse. “REEP is very child friendly,” she says, “and the children tell REEP things they do not tell their families. Children even report directly without being accompanied by an adult. REEP has become like a movement in this region, it has gone beyond us - now children are being empowered.”
Equality for women begins with justice for girls. Partners like Mary, who take a stand for vulnerable women and girls, inspire us to do the work we do.