* Editor’s note: Nicholas Kristof was in Davis this week, lecturing at the Mondavi Center on Monday evening as part of the Campus Community Book Project, which chose his book, “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide” as its selection this year.
NAIROBI, Kenya — She’s a 4-year-old girl named Ida, fragile and shy, and when she was raped by a neighbor boy in September, her family tried to have the attacker arrested.
Yet the only interest the police showed was to ask for a bribe equivalent to $11.50 to make the arrest, the family says. The family didn’t have the money, but perhaps the rapist did because the supposed police investigation stalled.
This kind of police indifference and corruption is a major factor in the impunity that leads to staggering levels of sexual violence in much of the world. A United Nations study released in September of 10,000 men in six countries in Asia and the Pacific found that almost one-quarter acknowledged having raped a woman.
Other studies have reported similar findings. A 2011 study found that 37 percent of men in part of South Africa acknowledged having raped women.
Often the victims, like Ida, are breathtakingly young. Ida lives in the vast, teeming Kibera slum in Nairobi, where she is being raised by a great-uncle and great-aunt, Stephen and Jane, after her parents largely abandoned her. Stephen and Jane are pillars of stability in a troubled area, and they have taken in three street children to raise along with four children of their own.
After Ida’s rape, Jane closed her tiny restaurant for two weeks to get Ida surgery to repair internal injuries. Jane then made five trips to the Kilimani police station that oversees the slum to try to get someone to make an arrest.
In this case, the evidence seemed strong: A neighbor had caught the alleged rapist in the house during the attack, and a police doctor had filled out forms documenting the rape and internal injuries.
Yet the police shrugged and did nothing. Stephen assumes that the perpetrator bribed the police.
After repeated inquiries, the police officers finally threatened to make an arrest in the rape case — not of the young man caught red-handed, but of Stephen and Jane for leaving the girl unattended and vulnerable.
The police station had the right physical infrastructure to deal with sexual violence. It had a separate counter for such cases, staffed by female officers. Posters denounced rape.
Yet Stephen and Jane tried to do the right thing — and then the police, in my presence, shouted at them and threatened to arrest them for their perseverance.
That was a terrifying threat, for who would look after Ida then? Stephen, a dignified man who was heartbroken at what happened to Ida, wilted. He seemed to have lost hope of justice.
What happened to Ida was no anomaly. I followed two other girls, a 13-year-old and a 14-year-old, who both said that they had been raped by a wealthier neighbor with HIV. Their families made eight visits to the Kilimani police station in Nairobi, waiting hours at a time, pleading for justice — but nothing ever happened. The families did spot the perpetrator’s wife at the station, perhaps paying a bribe.
On each visit by the family, the police reported that some paper had mysteriously gone missing from the file. When a witness report was needed, the family brought the witness to the police station — and then the police charged her a fee for a piece of blank paper on which to write her statement.
I tweeted a photo from the police station, saying the police wouldn’t take action. Soon after the tweet, the police officers’ attitudes miraculously changed, and authorization for an arrest was given. Yet when the police went to make the arrest, the alleged rapist obviously had been tipped off somehow and had fled.
This breakdown in justice is common in much of the world. In many poor countries, the criminal justice system was set up decades ago to protect white colonial families and never really made the transition to serving the entire society. Salaries tend to be low, corruption high, accountability nonexistent — and, as a result, deterrence negligible.
In the U.N. survey, by far the most common reason men cited for raping women and girls was a sense of male entitlement, with explanations like “I wanted her.” Another factor was impunity, for more than two-thirds of men who acknowledged raping said that they had faced no legal consequences.
Attitudes like entitlement are hard to change. Reducing impunity is somewhat easier, and if we need evidence that imposing penalties can reduce the incidence of rape, just look at the United States.
Few people realize that rape has fallen by three-quarters over the past four decades in the United States, according to Justice Department statistics. It’s true that underreporting makes the data not fully reliable, but underreporting is unlikely to be more serious now than in the 1970s.
The reason for the decline in American rape is simple. Most rapes are acquaintance rapes, and a generation ago police often shrugged. (“You were drinking. You were making out with him. You still call it rape?”)
These attitudes still exist in America, rape kits often aren’t tested even after evidence has been properly collected, and plenty of date rapists get away with their crimes. But punishment is still far more likely today than it once was — and that danger restrains men even when they’re tipsy and lusting. If ending the impunity worked to reduce sexual violence in America, it can do the same in other countries.
That may be beginning to happen. After some horrifying rapes, India appears to be taking crimes of sexual violence more seriously in some cases. And here in Kenya, I was following Shining Hope for Communities, a slum-empowerment program in Kibera started by a remarkable young man, Kennedy Odede, who was once a homeless, uneducated street child in Kibera — and then taught himself to read and write, attended Wesleyan University, and now runs programs serving 43,000 slum residents.
Odede operates the Kibera School for Girls, an outstanding elementary school, and he soon found that many girls entering prekindergarten had been raped. To build a safer environment for the girls, he started a system of victim advocates to help push the police to do their jobs, and the group is winning support for its message that “no” means “no” — and that rapists should be punished.
It’s having an impact, offering a model for efforts to combat sexual violence worldwide.
— The New York Times