How to Help Girls Enduring the Unendurable

NAIROBI, Kenya — She is impossibly young to have endured what she did, and what still haunts her is the job of the man responsible: a police officer.

“He said that if I tell, he will kill me,” whispered the 11-year-old girl, whom I’ll call Nancy (the names of the girls in this column have been changed). “I have dreams that he is coming to kill me.”

Nancy was walking home last year when the policeman chased her. She might have been able to outrun him on her own, but her mom had entrusted her to walk her 5-year-old brother home. They ran together but the boy was slow and she was too responsible to let go of his hand — so the officer caught her and then, she said, raped her.

Afterward, she delivered her brother home but was bleeding so badly she soon lost consciousness. Her family rushed her to the hospital.

The authorities are still searching for the police officer, but because she is a prospective witness, the family fears for her safety. So now she is rebuilding her life in a safe house on the edge of Nairobi run by a nonprofit called Kara Olmurani.

Two dozen girls spill out of the seven-bedroom safe house, telling stories that sear the heart. They underscore that sexual violence is a global scourge that we haven’t done enough to fight.

The shelter takes in girls 14 and under.Credit…Giles Clarke for the New York Times
A girl plays hide and seek in the courtyard of the shelter.Credit…Giles Clarke for the New York Times

One unpublished survey found that a majority of women in the Kibera slum here in Nairobi had their first sexual experience through rape or sexual assault. The World Health Organization estimates that almost one-third of women worldwide have experienced physical or sexual violence, with rates particularly high in developing countries. A 2013 United Nations survey found that almost a quarter of men in six Asian countries acknowledged that they had raped someone.

This is part of the unfinished business of #MeToo, and it could use more American leadership. For many years, the bipartisan International Violence Against Women Act has languished in Congress; it would make permanent an office in the State Department for women’s issues and elevate issues of gender violence.

How much difference would this make in practice? I don’t know, but a similar approach to human trafficking has been fairly effective at applying American pressure on foreign countries to end impunity for traffickers.

Sexual violence persists because it’s hard to talk about. It thrives in silence, leaving children nowhere to turn.

“I could not tell anyone,” Muriel, 14, told me. “My mum would not have understood.”

Muriel says that her stepfather abused her beginning when she was 8. “I started asking myself questions,” she said. “‘God, why did you allow this to happen? What did I do to you, God, to allow this? Did I bring this about? Who’s to blame, me or my dad?’”

Eventually Muriel did tell her mother, but it didn’t help. “My mum was blaming me, scolding me, warning me not to tell anyone else,” she said.

Things changed only after Muriel was raped while at school at age 13 by a young man who entered the school grounds and drugged her. She became pregnant from that rape, and hospital authorities informed the police. The perpetrator has not been found, and there was never an attempt to prosecute the stepfather.

The impunity is typical. The Kara Olmurani shelter has 24 girls, and in only one case has there been a prosecution. That case involved a man who was regularly raping his 9-year-old stepdaughter.

“I told my mum, and she wouldn’t believe it,” the girl told me.

The abuse in that case ended only when some men smoking marijuana in a field saw the stepfather raping the girl and intervened, leading to arrest and prosecution.

“People are not willing to talk about the sexual abuse of children,” said the Rev. Terry Gobanga, who founded Kara Olmurani. “They’re not willing to confront it.”

“People are not willing to talk about the sexual abuse of children,” said the Rev. Terry Gobanga, who founded Kara Olmurani shelter.Credit…Nitashia Johnson for The New York Times

Gobanga speaks from experience. On the morning of her planned wedding in 2004, she was on a street in Nairobi when several men shoved her into a car and then gang-raped her, stabbed her and threw her from the moving car.

The wedding party gathered at the church without her, unaware of what had happened: When she was supposed to be celebrating her marriage, she was fighting for her life in a hospital.

Seven months later, after she had recovered, she and her fiancé married. She regularly counseled sexual assault survivors and was frustrated that abused children often had no safe place to go, so she started Kara Olmurani and runs it on a shoestring. It takes in girls 14 and under but can’t begin to meet the need. If Gobanga can raise the money, she would like to expand the safe house and open a similar home for abused boys.

These are hard stories to hear, I understand. But change will come only when we talk about these difficult topics — and prosecute perpetrators.

One girl in the safe house told me that after a pastor raped her at the age of 12 she tearfully told her father: “He did something to me. I don’t know what it was.”

We know what it is, though: an enormous global human rights issue. We won’t eliminate it, but passing the International Violence Against Women Act would help to end the impunity, reducing the number of children traumatized by something that they don’t even understand.

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