AnalysesGender & SGBV

Femicide In Kenya: Is Social Media Enabling Perpetrators To Target Women?

Though many cases of femicide involve familiar men such as husbands, boyfriends, and exes, recent cases show that it is important to consider how to make online interactions safer.

Starlet Wahu was a 24-year-old woman who had started to make a name for herself in Kenya’s social circles. Just like it meant nothing, her life was mercilessly snatched in an Airbnb in Nairobi, the country’s capital city, on Jan. 3 while on a date with murder suspect John Matara.

After John’s arrest, six women have so far come out to testify against him.

Like Starlet, they were lured by him online. He pretended to be in search of love, and when they met physically, he attacked them. Although he pleads not guilty to the accusations, reports suggest he has a long history of brutalising women. He was evicted from his previous home after neighbours complained that he was physically violent with different women he invited over, sometimes almost to the point of death.

What happened to Starlet Wahu is one case in a tragic pattern. Rita Muendo Waeni, a former student at Jomo Kenyatta University of Science and Technology, was also murdered last month in cold blood. She was dismembered in a short-let apartment in the capital city. 

“The head had been chopped off on the neck at the level of the C5 vertebrae. There was bruising on the scalp which to me looked like it was caused by a blunt object and then upon looking at the neck’s structure we also saw fractures which are usually very important in homicide,” said Chief Government Pathologist Dr Johansen Oduor, who carried out her autopsy.

She met her killer on Instagram. 

Just how bad is it?

Kenyans can no longer watch their sisters, mothers, and friends risk being murdered as though their fundamental human rights don’t matter.

On Jan. 27, thousands gathered to resound the names of women who were killed on account of their gender, and on Feb. 14, people dressed in black gathered for a “Dark Valentine” vigil in Nairobi to protest again.

This East African country has quickly become a hotspot of femicide attacks in 2024, with at least 14 killings reported by the press since the start of the year.

About 500 women were murdered in Kenya between 2017 and 2024, according to research conducted by Africa Uncensored and Africa Data Hub. Femicide Count Kenya, which monitors the trend, says there were 152 killings in 2023 alone — the highest number in the last five years.

Nairobi, Kiambu, and Nakuru are the places in Kenya with the highest number of recorded femicide cases.

From the numbers provided by Africa Data Hub, 85 per cent of cases were perpetrated by an intimate partner, ex-lover, relative, or friend whom the victim was fond of, and about 15 per cent were executed by strangers. The Kenya Demographic and Health Survey (KDHS) also revealed that over 40 per cent of women have experienced physical or sexual intimate partner violence in their lifetime.

Research has established that there is indeed a pattern for these killings. Women who were murdered by intimate partners were stabbed and hacked, and the victims who were killed by strangers were largely strangled after being sexually abused by their killers.

Despite the gravity of the crimes, not all victims seek support or justice. Globally, less than 40 per cent of women who experience violence seek help, and most of those who seek help turn to family and friends. Only a very few look to formal institutions, such as police and health services, and fewer than 10 per cent of those seeking help report to the police.

A survey conducted in 2021 showed that most Kenyans regard domestic violence as a private matter rather than a criminal issue that requires the involvement of law enforcement.

Is social media making it worse?

According to statistics for 2024, 4.5 billion people use social media, which is equivalent to 61 per cent of the world’s population. By the end of 2024, it is expected to reach 5.17 billion people. On average, social media users spend 2 hours and 24 minutes on online platforms.

There is no doubt that social media influences our lives in more ways than we can imagine. It has shaped how we live, interact, and communicate with people. It has also provided an avenue to share our thoughts with a wide range of audiences and learn from others. 

Mugeni, however, believes that the rise of social media has “significantly facilitated the dissemination of misogynistic ideologies, contributing to an environment where instances of gender-based violence against women are not only prevalent but potentially underreported”.

Although many relationships have blossomed from social media, engaging with individuals online leads to the risk of encountering inhumane treatment, “primarily due to the anonymity afforded”. “The virtual space provides a veil of concealment, making it challenging to discern the true intentions or character of those one interacts with,” she added. 

Though many cases of femicide involve familiar men such as husbands, boyfriends, and exes, it is still important to consider how to make online interactions safer.

There are many cases where encounters springing from the internet have led to fatal outcomes for women in various parts of Africa and other places. On Monday, May 13, 2020, Constable Pauline Wangari was stabbed to death by a man she had met on social media. In 2019, Fabiola Thomas was murdered by a man whom she also met online. This is the same for Lydia Nyaboke Onano, who in 2018 was strangled by a boyfriend on their first date, and Jette Jacobs, who flew to South Africa to meet her Nigerian boyfriend in 2013.

Mugeni advises that in communicating with strangers online, it is important to initiate video calls early, guard personal or sensitive information, exercise caution with physical meetings, and inform close relations about them for added security.

Social media users should also pay attention to clear warning signs that reveal the malicious intent of perpetrators like avoiding video calls, employing manipulative declarations of affection to foster a false sense of intimacy, seeking personal information under the guise of building trust, insisting on secrecy, exhibiting possessive or controlling behaviours by incessant calling, and monopolising one’s time.

Why are women being killed?

In her interview with HumAngle, Audrey Mugeni, co-founder of Femicide Count Kenya, explained that cases of femicide in Kenya are due to the complex interplay of many factors. These include sexism, pervasive misogyny, power imbalances, and educational inequalities.

In 2019, Salome Kanini was allegedly set ablaze by her estranged husband at their matrimonial home. Around one in 4 girls are married early, and about one in five undergo female genital mutilation (FGM) in the country. In 2022, at least 34 per cent of women in Kenya said they had experienced physical violence of some sort. 

Kosana Beker, a renowned women’s rights activist in Serbia, explained that femicide is also fueled by patriarchal social norms, which sometimes mean men see women as their property or lesser beings.

This is a fundamental concern in Kenya, even among political leaders.

In December 2020, a popular politician, Edwin Sifuna, made a vulgar comment against a female member of parliament, describing her as someone who is “not attractive enough to rape”. 

“When we think about femicide, to me, I see a lot of hatred towards women, objectifying them. Because of the manner that they are killed, it can tell you it’s all about gender,” Dr Susan Gitau, counselling psychologist and therapist, mentioned in an interview.

Although perpetrators and apologists have blamed this act on uncontrolled anger, their inability to restrain themselves in certain situations, or the victims for ignoring the red flags, no form of murder can be justified.

“Breaking up with a boyfriend or burning food are not reasons to end a life. Yet trivial motives like these are often cited in cases of femicide. We ask, “What did she do?” instead of “Why did he kill her?” This tendency to blame victims perpetuates violence against women,” Dr Gitau said.

The crooked road to justice

Usually, once a suspect is apprehended for a trial, it takes an average of 1900 days before a sentence is passed. This is due to factors like the absence of expert witnesses, missing police files, and witness tampering.

Additionally, inaccurate investigations and the transfer of key personnel involved in the legal process, like the judges, prosecutors, and investigators, further contribute to delays in the pursuit of justice.

There is indeed a noticeable gap in the government’s response to the escalating cases of femicide in Kenya. Despite laid down policies to promote gender equality, femicide persists, with endless promises of justice after every murder.

Organisations like Femicide Count Kenya are, however, helping to improve safety for women by keeping data on femicide cases and helping victims get justice.

If you or anyone you know is facing any form of gender-based violence, you are not alone. Dial the emergency line of your country, or contact the police immediately.

The Directorate of Criminal Investigations in Kenya has created a round-the-clock toll-free hotline (0800722203), which can be called to provide valuable information to aid investigations or facilitate the capture of offenders. Additionally, for matters related to gender-based violence, you can contact 1195 for assistance. 

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