Communities targeted to take ownership in GBV war

Maureen Mukalo, Programme Manager at the Coalition on Violence against Women (COVAW). She says that most GBV cases are as a result of power imbalance in the homes, places of work and society in general. Photo Nancy Njoroge
Maureen Mukalo, Programme Manager at the Coalition on Violence against Women (COVAW). She says that most GBV cases are as a result of power imbalance in the homes, places of work and society in general. Photo Nancy Njoroge

The rising number of Gender Based Violence (GBV) cases across the country affirms that much more needs to be done in fighting the vice.

Maureen Mukalo, Programme Manager at the Coalition on Violence against Women (COVAW) says they have been forced to change strategies over the years since the organisation was founded in 1995 to address the problem.

Some of the new strategies they are employing include focusing on small geographical areas over a long period of time and working with local partners who know the ground best as well as how to deal with the challenges.

Under the leadership of Dr Joan Nyanyuki as Executive Director, COVAW is currently implementing GBV programmes in Nairobi, Kiambu, Kwale, Narok and Samburu counties.

COVAW’s work in these areas is informed by a baseline survey conducted to identify the hot spots in the anti-GBV campaign in the 47 counties. The survey helped in prioritising the needs to be addressed.

Strategies and key interventions

“Our work is guided by COVAW’s strategic initiatives where key interventions include movement building and community activism. We involve all stakeholders led by change agents and community activists,” explains Mukalo. “We use our community mobilization approach known as SASA! an acronym for Start, Awareness, Support, and Action!”

Using this approach in workshops, seminars and community forums across the country COVAW has discovered that most GBV cases are as a result of power imbalance in the homes, places of work and society in general.

In its movement building and community activism strategic initiative, COVAW partners with community based organisations (CBOs), community activists, duty bearers and other development agencies to sensitise the public on gender based violence directly and indirectly.

Access to justice

COVAW, a member of the Africa UNiTE Kenya Chapter, creates awareness within the community. The organisation helps GBV survivors and their immediate relatives to access justice and know their rights through the access to justice and women’s right strategic initiative.

“Whenever we get information on GBV from the survivors, we share it with our legal officers to address,” says Mukalo. “We note that there is a big gap as most people don’t know where and how to report on GBV.”

COVAW offers pro-bono (subsidized legal services) to needy cases with support from its pro-bono lawyers supported by partners.  However, these cases must meet the minimum threshold which includes reporting a GBV case to the authorities and filling a P-3 form.

The most abused group of people COVAW has recorded are intellectually challenged girls and women who are exploited because they are incapacitated.

Mukalo says such cases are not easy to follow because of interference, frustrations and bureaucracy by the authorities as well as relatives and/or guardians.

Lobbying and advocacy

There are some GBV cases that need to be lobbied at the county while there are those that demand national attention. COVAW is already doing this Kwale County through the lobby and advocacy initiative where cases of early and child marriages are rampant as well as child trafficking and sexual exploitation.

“We have started an aggressive lobbying and advocacy programme in Kwale County to protect the girl-child,” explains Mukalo.

A similar programme has been started in Narok County to address cases of harmful cultural practices against women and girls. It addresses issues around reproductive rights, female genital mutilation, early marriage and forced abortions among others.

COVAW is working closely with the Anti-FGM Board to save girls from harmful cultural practices which also lead to early pregnancies and marriages as well as school drop outs.

COVAW is working with community leaders and stakeholders in Narok to come up with alternative rites of passage to reduce cases of FGM in the county.

One of the programmes in Narok is called MAANDA Sexual and Reproductive Rights Health which has brought on board traditional birth attendants, religious leaders and key opinion shapers in the county.


In Kwale County, COVAW has a project involving 72 public primary schools with the objective of improving educational standards in the region.

Already scores of community activists have been recruited to deal with schoolgirl dropouts and to promote community forums where GBV is highlighted and addressed. Major causes are high poverty levels, myths about education and cases of schoolgirls being brushed aside in Kiswahili: “kichwa haishiki kitu (the head is stubborn does not catch any knowledge).”

“We have 72 schools under the programme, with each having a class of 15 to 20 pupils who are taught about GBV, Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights as well as life skills and its side effects,” explains Mukalo.  COVAW is also targeting teachers as well as boys and girls in the guidance and counselling clubs.

There is an out-of-school programme in Kwale targeting girls who have dropped out of school. They partner with community activists in reaching the girls.

Within the county, COVAW is working with the Kwale Welfare and Education Association (KWEA), a local community based organisation to promote role models and mentoring. The three-year programme has been an instant success with professionals who were born and raised in Kwale County returning home to share their story with students in primary and secondary schools.

“The community has been very receptive to this programme and we had 15 girls who had dropped out return after attending a series of sensitisation forums,” says Mukalo.

Gender power relations

On emerging issues, Mukalo says, many cases of GBV are linked to power imbalance where the society is experiencing a shift in gender roles; more women are becoming sole bread winners in their homes thus affecting the traditional set up in households leading to conflict and violence.

More women are becoming aware of their reproductive rights and are taking matters into their own hands deciding on when, how and which form of contraceptives to use. This they do without the husbands’ knowledge or consent.

“What makes dealing with these cases challenging is because sexual and reproductive rights are sensitive issues that are not discussed openly in the communities and we must handle them with care,” says Mukalo. “It’s the same with cases of unsafe abortion and GBV among others.”

There is also the issue of structures and capacity of police officers to man gender desks. Concern has been raised that after training police officers to be gender responsive, they are transferred to other stations, leaving the gender desk with an untrained officer.

The solution to this problem is to have GBV embraced by the Kenya Police Service as a policy and included the curriculum at Kiganjo Police Training College so that all officers can be equipped with skills and knowledge on how to address GBV cases.

“We have many laws and policies targeting gender based violence but the problem is enforcement and the culture of silence surrounding GBV matters in our communities. This is the brick wall that we must face head on,” Mukalo says.