Africa I will not be silenced: fight for justice that gave Kenya rape...

I will not be silenced: fight for justice that gave Kenya rape victims a voice

 Defence counsel Evans Ondieki and Charlotte Campbell-Stephen in court in Nairob
Defence counsel Evans Ondieki and Charlotte Campbell-Stephen in court in Nairob

As Charlotte Campbell-Stephen sat in a Kenyan police station reporting the brutal attack and gang rape she endured over an eight-hour period, the police interview room began to fill with men.It was 2006 and Campbell-Stephen, an Australian aid worker, was giving detective inspector Geoff Kinuya what she described as a “blow-by-blow”account of her ordeal.

Eight hours had been a long time to stare at the violent Nairobi gang as they mocked and raped her, but it had allowed her to memorise and describe to Kinuya her ordeal, and her attackers, in meticulous detail. Like “the man with the big leather jacket”.

“He had just this little thin silver necklace with a cross on it, with diamonds on it, and his chest was sort of hovering above me. And as he was thrusting above me it kept hitting me in the head and I grabbed hold of it at one point and twisted it and said to him: ‘You call yourself a Christian.. And he just started thrusting harder.”

Campbell-Stephen is speaking as the documentary about her ordeal and subsequent fight for justice, I Will Not Be Silenced, launches the 2015 Human Rights Arts and Film festival in Melbourne.

When she did the same in the police station, Kinuya sat and recorded everything methodically, Campbell-Stephen tells Guardian Australia. “But while I was recounting what had happened, all the other detectives at the station had filed into the room,” she said. “Soon, the room was packed full of men.”

At the time, rape victims in Kenya so rarely reported their attackers to police, let alone testified against them in court, that the detectives present that day in the station at Ongata Rongai, an overcrowded residential settlement 17km south of Nairobi in Kenya’s Rift Valley, were baffled by Campbell-Stephen.

“Every time I said the world ‘vagina’ all of them except for Geoff would put their heads down and start shuffling papers,” she says. “At one point I banged the desk and said: ‘What is the problem with you men? Why is the word vagina making you all feel uneasy?’ From the beginning, I challenged them with the sensitive nature of what I was talking about, but more than that, their reactions to it.”

Told by the police that no one won rape cases in Kenya, Campbell-Stephen decided to challenge them, the Kenyan judiciary and a deeply entrenched patriarchal culture which kept victims silent. She did not take advice from the Australian embassy in Kenya to go home. Instead, she took her perpetrators to court. The gruelling legal battle that ensued allowed her to expose and challenge the systems which were keeping women powerless in Kenya.

Campbell-Stephen, who grew up in the Sydney suburb of Cronulla, says she still loves Kenya. In 2006, by then living in Byron Bay on the NSW north coast, she left Australia to work for the Kenyan aid organisation African Leaf, which supports abused children. The attack occurred just two months into her stay, when the gang invaded a home she was renting on the edge of the Rift Valley.

The director of I Will Not Be Silenced, Judy Rymer, follows the haphazard navigation of the case through the courts, while also capturing the stories of Kenyan women who gained the strength to fight their perpetrators through watching Campbell-Stephen’s case unfold.

In Kenya, sexual violence is rife. Based only on the number of rapes reported to Nairobi Women’s hospital to the Kenya National Commission of Human Rights in 2006, a woman is raped every 30 minutes. For one quarter of Kenyan women, it will be their first sexual experience.

According to the Federation of Women Lawyers in Kenya, women’s access to post-rape healthcare is hampered by a lack of education about those services, limited money to pay for them and stigma towards victims of sexual violence. The country’s often corrupt legal system only adds to their trauma, with punishments for rapists ranging from jail time to being forced to cut grass.

Campbell-Stephen says she expected her case would last about six months at most. It took seven-and-a-half years.

“First off, I don’t have a legal team, because I’m not allowed one,” she says. “No victim of rape in Kenya is, but what you are allowed is a state-appointed prosecutor. In seven-and-a-half years I’ve gone through 18 prosecutors and eight magistrates. The case has been restarted from scratch eight times.”

Often, those prosecutors had little to no experience working with victims of rape and sexual assault. And while the five men accused by Campbell-Stephen of attacking her were allowed a lawyer, initially they could not afford one, meaning that for the first three years of the case, she was directly cross-examined by her attackers,.

“There were five of them in the dock, and they could take as long as they wanted asking me whatever they wanted to in relation to the case. Some of the questions were: ‘What does my penis look like, how big is it? How do you know it was mine?’”

When a defence lawyer was eventually assigned in the fourth year of proceedings, he went on the offensive for his clients, as the documentary shows. On a number of occasions, her files were stolen or tampered with. Often, that meant her case was thrown out, forcing her to recount her five hours’ worth of testimony all over again before a new magistrate.

Ultimately, her perpetrators were sentenced to death, though not for rape – they were acquitted of those charges. But they were found guilty of violent robbery, which is considered a much more serious crime in Kenya. The death penalty has not been enforced since 1987, so this was automatically converted to life imprisonment.

Campbell-Stephen said the sentencing for violent robbery, but not for rape, did not diminish the verdict in any way. Pushing hard for the violent robbery charge was part of the strategy she and Kinuya used, given the difficulty in prosecuting rapists and the haphazard sentencing for rape charges.

What does disturb Campbell-Stephen, is that her perpetrators never once showed remorse.

“These guys did some awful stuff,” she says. “They’ve been in my life for a long time. They have no remorse. None. Even now. I’ve tried and tried over those years just to get a glimpse of remorse. I never did.”

Supporting Campbell-Stephen throughout were the Kenyan women, largely from Nairobi’s slums, who were inspired by her strength, and Kinuya, the unwavering detective to whom she first reported her case in 2006.

“I know it would have been far more difficult had I not had a Geoff,” Campbell-Stephen says. “Geoff couldn’t come to the court all the time with me, but he was always at the end of the phone when I broke down when things got really hard. We connected because he believes in people’s truths, and he has backed me the whole way. He was aware from the beginning this was a serious issue, and from somewhere inside of him, he found the fight.”

 Campbell-Stephen with the women of Kibera Women for Peace and Fairness
Campbell-Stephen with the women of Kibera Women for Peace and Fairness

Campbell-Stephen was also given permission to have her case heard by an open court, the first time that had happened during a rape case hearing in Kenya.

“I thought: if the accused family members wanted to sit in court and jostle me outside court, and slap me to the ground, then open those doors,” she tells Guardian Australia. “Let people understand this is what happens in a rape case, that this is how victims are treated. I have no shame around it. Let me speak about this in public.”

And she did. Campbell-Stephen’s case gained attention. As she went through the courts, she spoke to Kenyan women about her ordeal and worked with welfare organisations to educate women about post-rape healthcare services and how to navigate the legal system.

Women began approaching her in the streets to tell her that they or their child had been a victim of rape, and that they wanted to report it. She taught police how to record a rape victim’s statement, and the people she trained began training their colleagues. Now when a survivor goes to report a rape to the police, they have “gender-based violence desks” in every station in Kenya, says Campbell-Stephen.

“Police are being trained in sensitisation towards gender-based violence, they’re also schooled in how to collect evidence. So if you have knickers or jeans or any evidence, they put it into paper bags instead of plastic ones, and they don’t just leave it lying around the office.”

“It took me seven-and-a-half years, but I feel because of these changes that have happened, no other woman will go through that and if they do, there will be an outcry.”

Support has come from the upper echelons of the justice system. Rymer and her documentary team were granted access to all of Kenya’s courts and permission to film there by the chief justice of Kenya, Willy Mutunga. Recently, Mutunga screened I Will Not Be Silenced to 400 magistrates and judges at a legal seminar in Nairobi. He told Campbell-Stephen: “This is all I need to change the system.”

Campbell-Stephen herself is still based in Nairobi, where she works with thePolycom project, a women’s empowerment organisation based in Kibera’s slums, which among many things educates girls about abuse. The documentary has proved a powerful education and advocacy tool.

“My time in Kenya is not up,” she says. “I love going out and working with women and seeing the change and possibilities that open to them when they learn about the power they hold. And I’m just one person. We have networks of people now in Nairobi working on these cases.”

A few weeks ago, when she walked into a Kenyan court, police officers couldn’t wait to show her the newest addition to the courtroom: a protective, double-sided glass box, in which women and children can give evidence to the court without having to look at their accused perpetrator.

“It just brought tears to my eyes,” Campbell-Stephen said. “It’s a really powerful thing.” Even more important, she says, is if this groundswell – “this change that’s occurring”– were to keep going even if she stepped aside. “That is power.”

  • I Will Not Be Silenced is screening at locations throughout Australia as part of the Human Rights Arts & Film festival: Melbourne on Sunday 17 May, 6.30pm, ACMI; Sydney on Saturday 30 May, 7pm, Dendy Cinema Newtown.
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