Shaken by the horrific killings of women, African activists are calling for change

A spate of serious murders of women in several African countries in recent weeks has sparked outrage and outrage, sparked a wave of protests and prompted calls for governments to take decisive action against gender-based violence.

Kenyans were shocked when 31 women were killed in January after being beaten, strangled or beheaded, activists and police said. In Somalia this month, a pregnant woman allegedly died after her husband set it on fire. In the West African nation of Cameroon, a powerful businessman era arrested in January the accusations, which he denied, of having brutalized dozens of women.

The rise in killings is part of a broader pattern that has worsened during tough economic times and pandemic lockdowns, human rights activists say. An estimated 20,000 gender-related murders of women were recorded in Africa in 2022. highest rate in the worldaccording to UN experts, the real figures are probably higher.

“The problem is the normalization of gender violence and the rhetoric that, yes, women are disposable,” said Njeri wa Migwi, co-founder of Usikimye – Swahili for Don’t Be Silent – ​​a non-profit organization. Kenyan profit that works with victims of gender violence.

Feminist scholar Diana Russell popularized the term feminicide – the killing of women or girls because of their gender – to create a category that distinguishes it from other killings. A United Nations report says somurders are often committed by male partners or close family members and are preceded by physical, emotional and sexual abuse.

Critics say many African leaders, as well as police, ignore or downplay the problem, or even ignore it blaming the victims.

On a recent afternoon, Ms. Migwi, co-founder of the non-profit organization, was leading a training session for girls and women when she was suddenly called to a house near Kayole, a low-income, high-crime neighborhood in east of Nairobi.

Inside the dimly lit house, Jacinta Ayuma, a day laborer and mother of two, lay lifeless, with bloody bruises visible on her face, neck and left arm. Police said she was killed by her boyfriend. He fled and they haven’t arrested him yet. An autopsy showed that she died from blunt force trauma that resulted in multiple organ injuries.

Wails of anguish hung in the air as several officers carried the body into a police van using a thin duvet. Three neighbors said they heard someone screaming for help throughout the night, until around 6am. But they said they did not intervene or call the police because the sounds of beatings and distress were commonplace, and they considered it a private matter.

Ms. Migwi, in her office nearby, said she had seen too many similar cases. “I’m in mourning,” she said, her head in her hands. “There’s a helplessness that comes with all of this.”

To coincide with Valentine’s Day, women’s rights activists in Kenya organized a vigil called “Dark Valentine” in the capital to commemorate the murdered women. According to a report, at least 500 women were victims of femicide in Kenya between 2016 and 2023. a recent report from the African Data Huba group of data organizations working with journalists in several African countries and analyzing cases reported by Kenyan media.

About 300 people wearing black T-shirts waved red roses, lit red candles and observed a minute’s silence.

“Why should we keep reminding people that women need to be alive,” said Zaha Indimuli, co-organizer of the event.

Among the women whose name was read at the vigil was Grace Wangari Thuiya, a 24-year-old beautician killed in Nairobi in January.

Two days before her death, Ms Thuiya visited her mother in Murang’a county, about 35 miles north-east of Nairobi. During her visit, her mother, Susan Wairimu Thuiya, said he spoke about her to 20 year old university student who was dismembered a few days earlier and what seemed like an epidemic of violence against women.

Ms Thuiya warned her daughter, who she described as ambitious and jovial, to be careful in her dating choices.

“Fear gripped my heart that day,” Ms. Thuiya said of their last meeting.

Two days later, police called Ms. Thuiya to inform her that her daughter had died after her boyfriend repeatedly attacked and stabbed her. Ms Thuiya said her daughter had never revealed that she was seeing anyone. Police said they arrested a man in the apartment where Grace Thuiya was killed.

“This is all a bad dream that I want to wake up from,” Ms. Thuiya said.

The murder of Mrs. Thuiya, among others, sparked large-scale protests across Kenya in late January. In recent years, anti-femicide protests had broken out in Kenya over the killing of Olympic athletes, and also in other African nations, including South Africa, Nigeria and Uganda.

Activists say the demonstrations were among the largest apolitical protests in Kenya’s history: at least 10,000 women and men crowded the streets of Nairobi alone, with thousands more joining in other cities.

At a time of growing anti-gay sentiment, the protests were also meant to highlight violence in the face of non-binaryqueer and transgender women, said Marylize Biubwa, a Kenyan queer activist.

The movement has generated a backlash, especially online, from men who argue that a woman’s clothing or choices justify abuse. Such comments are spread with hashtags like #StopKillingMen and by social media influencers like Andrew Kibe, a men’s rights champion and former radio host whose YouTube account was shut down last year for violating the company’s terms of service .

“Shut up,” he said in a recent video, referring to those outraged by the killing of the women. “You have no right to have an opinion.”

Activists say they don’t see enough outrage from politicians, ethnic or religious leaders.

In Kenya, President William Ruto has been criticized for failing to address femicide personally. A spokeswoman for his office did not respond to requests for comment. But following the protests, his government sworn to speed up investigations and introduced a toll-free number to allow the public to report offenders.

However, in Kenya and across Africa, activists say more investigators need to be hired, judges need to decide cases more quickly and lawmakers should pass laws to punish perpetrators more harshly.

Data collection and research into femicide needs to be funded, said Patricia Andago, a researcher at data firm Odipo Dev.

For now, the killings continue to leave a trail of devastation.

On a recent afternoon, Ms. Thuiya, whose 24-year-old daughter was killed in January, sat caring for her two granddaughters, 5-year-old Keisha and 22-month-old Milan. She said Keisha believed her mother had ascended “to heaven” and she asked if she could have a ladder to follow her.

“It was very painful,” Ms. Thuiya said as she listened to her granddaughter’s questions. “I just want justice for my daughter. And I want that justice now.”