By Jan Stoner
Today we drove to COVAW, a group we have supported for many years. It was set up in 1995 by a group of women's rights advocates from all over Kenya that determined that violence against women was the largest issue facing the women of Kenya. I expected a group with this type mission would be headquarted in the deep slums, instead we drove to a beautiful neighborhood with a lovely garden and house and gated yard.
Violence against women happens, like in America, to the rich and poor. If you have even a normal imagination you can name all the ways men and husbands physicallly and emotionally abuse their wives, sweethearts and children. It is the same in Kenya. I am choosing to not give the examples of the violence that we were told about. Some of the stories were so horrible that I wondered how these committed determined women can carry on. And the necessity of that lovely space became abundantly clear.
COVAW has not been in the space for long and the group's leaders were afraid the ladies would not be able to find them. Yet the day after they opened they came to work to find a long line of ladies waiting...
Kenya has good laws which prevent men from abusing and stalking women. The problem is getting the laws enforced. In the civil court system a divorce can take no less than two years and commonly takes six years or more. It is a very expensive process and many women give up and just walk away from their property.
Criminal cases have to be followed up on, but too often women refuse to prosecute or change their minds in the midst of the proceedings. The judges and police feel frustrated with the whole situation.They told one story of a man who was seriously threatening his wife. The police arrived in riot gear and surrounded the house but refused to go in. They told COVAW they were afraid to go in and that the COVAW women had to. They did and two hours later got the man to give up to the police. The woman wasn't harmed.
COVOW organizers have found that the most effective conclusion and best results seem to happen when the women choose the empowerment route and strike out on their own and make life over for themselves. COVAW offers counseling and group support while they create new lives for themselves. Yet even then men find ways to torment them, trying to get custody of the kids etc.
COVAW has tried to create regional centers and train volunteers throughout the country. They want to decentralize. Unfortunately this has led to an even greater volume of clients and the need to rescue even more women. They are commited but stretched.
After visiting the facility, our group spoke with COVAW leaders about why there is violence against women? They explained that churches take stands about the constitution and other political issues, but largely stay silent about this issue. Their silence implies that violence against women is not a priority or major issue. Some pastors make the situation worse as they demand women "pray for their husband so that God will change the man." COVAW' has a term for this: "Suffering Saint Syndrome." So often all these years of prayers leads to flowers on a grave.
Other reasons COVAW gave for violence against women in Kenya: Culture/tradition which promotes wives being inherited and considered property, poverty, ignorance and women's perception of themselves -- they have no sense of worth and of the possibility of anything else. They have a comfort zone and fear leaving it even when they suffer so much. Also the Asian and Muslim communities are very closed societies and when women from those communities come forward they tell the same horrible stories of abuse, but they never come for more than two sessions. Then COVAW gets a call saying it is being handled inside the community. They fear for the women but are powerless.
COWAV does so much with only a staff of 11 and volunteers. When you hear their mission and daily agenda they need to be 800 to dent the workload.