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Shaken by Grisly Killings of Women, Activists in Africa Demand Change

A wave of gruesome killings of women across several African countries in recent weeks has prompted outrage and indignation, triggered a wave of protests and precipitated calls for governments to take decisive action against gender-based violence.

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

The upsurge in killings is part of a broader pattern that got worse during economic hard times and pandemic lockdowns, human rights activists say. An estimated 20,000 gender-related killings of women were recorded in Africa in 2022, the highest rate in the world, according to the U.N. Experts believe the true figures are likely higher.

“The problem is the normalization of gender-based violence and the rhetoric that, yes, women are disposable,” said Njeri wa Migwi, the co-founder of Usikimye — Swahili for “Don’t be silent” — a Kenyan nonprofit working with victims of gender-based violence.

The feminist scholar Diana Russell popularized the term femicide — the killing of women or girls because of their gender — to create a category that distinguishes it from other homicides. According to a report by the United Nations, the killings are often carried out by male partners or close family members and are preceded by physical, emotional and sexual abuse.

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

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

Inside the dimly lit house, Jacinta Ayuma, a day laborer and mother of two, lay lifeless, bloody bruises visible on her face, neck and left arm. The police said she was killed by her partner. He fled, and they have yet to arrest him. An autopsy showed she died from blunt force trauma that resulted in multiple organ injuries.

Wails of anguish rang in the air as several officers carried the body into a police van using a thin duvet. Three neighbors said they had heard someone screaming for help throughout the night, until about 6 a.m. 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, back in her office nearby, said she had seen too many similar cases. “I am 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 campaigners in Kenya organized a vigil they called “Dark Valentine” in the capital to commemorate the women who have been killed. At least 500 women have been victims of femicide in Kenya between 2016 and 2023, according to a recent report by the Africa Data Hub, a group of data organizations working with journalists in several African countries that analyzed cases reported in Kenyan news media.

About 300 people donning black T-shirts waved red roses, lit red candles and observed a minute of silence.

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

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

Two days before her death, Ms. Thuiya visited her mother in Murang’a County, about 35 miles northeast of Nairobi. During the visit, her mother, Susan Wairimu Thuiya, said they had spoken about a 20-year-old college student who was dismembered just days before and what seemed like an epidemic of violence against women.

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

“Fear was gripping my heart that day,” Ms. Thuiya said of their last encounter.

Two days later, the police called Ms. Thuiya to inform her that her daughter had died after her boyfriend assaulted and repeatedly stabbed her. Ms. Thuiya said her daughter had never revealed that she was seeing someone. The 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.

Ms. Thuiya’s killing, 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 female Olympic athletes, and also in other African nations, including South Africa, Nigeria and Uganda.

Activists say the demonstrations were among the largest nonpolitical 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 rising anti-gay sentiments, the protests were also intended to highlight the violence facing nonbinary, queer 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 justified abuse. Such comments are disseminated with hashtags like #StopKillingMen and by social media influencers like Andrew Kibe, a men’s rights champion and former radio presenter 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 over the killings of women. “You have no right to have an opinion.”

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

In Kenya, President William Ruto has come under criticism for not personally addressing femicide. A spokesman with his office did not respond to requests for comment. But following the protests, his government vowed to expedite investigations and introduced a toll-free number for the public to report perpetrators.

Still, in Kenya and across Africa, campaigners say more investigators need to be hired, judges need to decide cases more quickly and legislatures should pass laws to punish perpetrators more severely.

Data collection and research on femicide needs to be funded, said Patricia Andago, a researcher at the 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 cuddling her two granddaughters, 5-year-old Keisha and 22-month-old Milan. She said that Keisha believed her mother ascended “to the sky” and asked if she could get a ladder to follow her.

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

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Nathan is an experienced journalist. He's covered a broad spectrum of topics, including politics, culture, and human interest stories, always aiming to engage and inform his audience. Nathan has a degree in Journalism and upholds the highest standards of integrity and accuracy in his work.

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