The disappearance and death of a leading human rights activist in Nairobi has once again highlighted the dangers faced by those who dare to stand up to the abuse of power by the Kenyan state — especially when they happen to be women.
Caroline Mwatha, who founded the Dandora Community Justice Center, which investigates and documents cases of police killings in the impoverished area, went missing more than a week ago only for her body to turn up at the city’s mortuary. The police, whom many suspect of having had a hand in her disappearance, were suspiciously quick to declare her death the result of a botched, illegal abortion — despite not carrying out an autopsy — and have arrested six people in connection with the incident.
But many, including members of her family, suspect a coverup and are calling for an independent autopsy to verify the police claims. On Wednesday, the police used tear gas to disperse demonstrators protesting the decision to delay an autopsy for five days because the government’s chief pathologist is allegedly out of town. The fear is that this will give time for evidence of foul play to deteriorate.
The skepticism is clearly warranted. Not only have the police been caught red-handed executing unarmed people on the streets, claiming them to be criminals, but they have also conspired to murder and cover up the murder of human-rights defenders as well as other innocents. In a particularly notorious case from 2016, cops arrested and murdered Josephat Mwendwa, his lawyer Willy Kimani and taxi driver Joseph Muiruri in an effort to derail investigations into the shooting of Mwendwa a year earlier.
Further, Mwatha’s death coincides with another inauspicious anniversary. 29 years ago, Kenya’s foreign minister Robert John Ouko disappeared from his home in Koru, some 185 miles west of Nairobi, only for his body to be found hours later at the foot of Got Alila Hill, nearly four miles away. Despite clear evidence of torture and the fact that the body had been partially burned, the government had no qualms about ruling that Ouko had essentially killed himself then tried to burn his own body. Though the true killers of Ouko have never been brought to book, it is beyond doubt that the administration of former president, Daniel arap Moi, was heavily involved. The dictator even once claimed to know who Ouko’s murderers were.
Thus, the Kenyan state cannot be trusted to be truthful when it comes to the deaths citizens it deems to be inconvenient. However, the allegation of a botched abortion is also a reminder of how gender can be weaponized against women who dare to challenge the state. Many Kenyans will recall how, in years past, female political activists were routinely labeled “divorcees” or accused of infidelity in attempts to discredit them. Even now, the allegations and details of infidelity and abortion provided by the police, have more than a hint of smear in Kenya’s patriarchal, conservative and deeply misogynistic and hypocritical society.
What appears to be lost in the police’s unseemly haste to exonerate themselves is that, regardless of the truth of their allegations, Mwatha would still be a victim. In either case, the state would still be culpable for her death. In fact, Kenya’s strict abortion laws, which essentially criminalize abortion unless the health and life of the mother are at risk, contribute to the deaths of more than 2,600 women and girls every year — an average of seven per day. Many more are maimed as hundreds of thousands of women are forced to procure dangerous terminations in backstreet clinics. Yet this horrendous tragedy has not been deemed a cause for national concern. If anything, it the government has sought to close down even the few places where women could seek advice on safe terminations.
Like the deaths of each of these women and girls, that of Mwatha is an unspeakable tragedy, regardless of the circumstances in which it happened. A fitting tribute would be to refocus national and international attention on the issue she spent her life investigating, documenting and highlighting — the continued murder of predominantly poor, young men by the police meant to be protecting them. The other equally important issue that must not be forgotten is the killing and maiming of women and girls by the legal regime that is supposed to protect them.
In the end, Caroline Mwatha’s life and death should remind all of a very important lesson: The Kenyan government still has trouble recognizing, let alone honoring, the humanity of ordinary Kenyans.
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