SMS platform offers lifeline for abuse survivors

Gender-based violence often thrives in silence. A toll free service is giving those affected a chance to report without fear of victimisation

Cases of sexual and gender-based violence are prevalent in Mukuru informal settlements. But many go unreported, with survivors choosing to suffer in silence for fear of stigma, backlash, retaliation and invasion of privacy.  A toll-free SMS code is, however, giving a lifeline to survivors of abuse in Mukuru by enabling them report cases of sexual and gender-based violence anonymously.  The 21094 SMS code that was introduced in July 2016, by Wangu Kanja Foundation in partnership with ActionAid Kenya and Nairobi county government, gives survivors access to a wide landscape of support services.

“Incidents of rape, defilement, sodomy, and domestic physical abuse occur in Mukuru almost everyday. The SMS platform was aimed at breaking the culture of silence, help survivors in their journey of healing and finding justice,” says Anastasia Wakonyo, a system operator of the SMS working with Wangu Kanja Foundation. The service focuses on the vast Mukuru slums including Mukuru Kayaba, Kwa Reuben and Kwa Njenga.

The anonymous nature of the direct messaging platform has encouraged more survivors to reach out for help, with over 1,000 cases reported so far. Each survivor’s case is handled confidentially by one systems operator from beginning to end to ensure that their private information is not unnecessarily exposed. Ordinarily, victims of these forms of assault are constantly subjected to retelling the ordeal to different people as they search for justice. This is traumatising to them, and so many shy away from reporting.

Once cases are reported those affected get access to medical care, legal assistance and counselling. “The priority for us is for survivors to immediately be taken to hospital and get treated. We then help them report the cases to the authorities and offer them counselling,” says Anastasia.  The foundation works with a pool of professionals including lawyers, counsellors to offer these services free of charge. The community has also turned to the SMS code to report cases of missing children, where to find jobs, and thefts. The crew manning the platform directs users to the relevant people.

The service is not only limited to Mukuru area, but is available across the country. The foundation’s collaborations with other organisations such as The Kenya Red Cross and ActionAid- Kenya, which have a network of centre across the country ensures that survivors access help wherever they are.  Under the platform, survivors get a chance to connect with a network of survivors for psychosocial support and get involved in income-generating activities such as peanut butter production.

Though the ingenious solution has come to the rescue of many survivors it has not been devoid of limitations. For instance, survivors of domestic violence who form the bulk of cases reported end up returning to their abusers once the matter has quelled.  “We do not have safe houses to host them. Due to poverty, most of them go back to the perpetrators who support them financially,” she says.

In most cases, assault recurs and the cycle of violation continues. Meanwhile the systems operators of the platform are spreading the word about speaking up and reaching out for help.

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