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NAIROBI, Kenya—A spike in calls to the national helpline for gender-based violence was one of the first signs that all was not well. It was December 2020, about nine months into Kenya’s nation-wide measures to contain the spread of COVID-19.

Tele-counsellors taking calls on gender-based violence at the HAK 1195 Helpline centre in Nairobi. © UNFPA Kenya/​Irene Wangui

After he received a distressing call, Peter*, a tele-counsellor for the national helpline, dispatched an ambulance to a village in Elgeyo Marakwet County.

“The caller reported that two young sisters had undergone female genital mutilation and both were experiencing excessive bleeding. One of them had fainted,” says Peter.

Peter contacted the Kenya Red Cross Society. With the police providing security during the rescue operation, the girls received medical attention before being transferred to a local health facility.

Female genital mutilation (FGM) was outlawed in Kenya a decade ago. The sisters are currently staying in a safe house, where they will receive support to continue with their education.  

“The circumciser was arrested after further investigations by the area chief. She will not be harming any other girls,” says Peter.

The circumciser was arrested. She will not be harming any other girls.

Calls for help rise more than three-fold

By December last year, Kenya’s national toll-free helpline number, HAK 1195, where Peter works, had received more than 6,000 calls from GBV survivors seeking services. This represents a 360 per cent increase in cases recorded during 2019.

One of the team of tele-counsellors that provides 24-hour psychosocial support and access to services such as health care, shelters, legal aid, police assistance and emergency ambulance rescue at the centre. © UNFPA Kenya/​Irene Wangui

“The pandemic helped raise the alarm on the safety of women and girls,” says Jane*, the lead tele-counselor. “It also revealed the social and economic vulnerabilities that expose them to violence.
For seven years she has worked on the team of tele-counsellors providing 24-hour services to survivors. This includes psychosocial support and access to services such as health care, shelters, legal aid, police assistance and emergency ambulance rescue. 

The helpline is operated by a local non-profit organization, Healthcare Assistance Kenya (HAK), in partnership with the Ministry of Public Service and Gender. UNFPA and UN Women provide technical and financial support, and raised public awareness of the helpline to enhance access to GBV services during the COVID-19 crisis.

At the height of the lockdown, UNFPA supported HAK to increase the capacity of the helpline's database for improved data collection and use. The new database captures information on a set of indicators, with the aim of strengthening the response to and prevention of GBV. The disaggregated data will better inform planning.

The data help us map out the different types of GBV, where they occur, and the people most affected.

“The data help us map out the different types of GBV, including the most commonly reported, where they occur, and the [people] most affected,” says UNFPA GBV/Gender Advisor, Caroline Murgor. Shared with the government and other partners of the GBV Technical Working Group, the data have helped quantify the extent of the problem. They are used to design policies and programmes based on evidence.

Ending FGM in Kenya by 2022

Kenya has an FGM prevalence of 21 per cent. While the government has committed to eliminating the practice by 2022, trends in the helpline data show that the harmful practice is one of the least reported forms of GBV.

HAK Director Fanis Lisiagali attributes this to the culture of silence and secrecy that surrounds the practice.

“Looking at the data, we can identify the areas where more advocacy and awareness is needed to empower women to speak up against FGM and all forms of gender-based violence,” she says. 

It is my personal commitment to end FGM in Kenya by the end of my tenure. - President Uhuru Kenyatta

Through the Joint Programme on Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting, UNFPA has supported various community dialogues and awareness campaigns using community radio to sensitize the public on preventing and responding to FGM. Through these efforts, more than 1 million people have been reached with information on the helpline. 

At the Generation Equality Forum held in Paris, France, President Uhuru Kenyatta committed to introducing a module on GBV in the 2022 Kenya Demographic Health Survey. This will strengthen the use of gender statistics in the design and scale-up of FGM and GBV programmes, in line with the presidential plan on ending FGM.

“It is my personal commitment to end FGM in Kenya by the end of my tenure,” said President Kenyatta. 

*Names have been changed to maintain confidentiality.