Q&A with one of Kenya’s GBV frontline responders
Alberta Wambua and her team at Kenya’s Gender Violence Recovery Centre (GVRC) sit at the frontline of GBV response. The organisation can receive up to 350 new cases a month, across its nine centres. Frontline responders risk their emotional well-being to help their community and, as Alberta argues, there needs to be a concerted effort to prevent violence occurring in the first place, to back up the country’s developing service provision.
What’s your motivation to be on the frontline?
My motivation to be on the frontline is the experience of attempted assault. At the time I did not seek the psychosocial support I needed. Back then I wasn’t aware of such services but there has been a big shift in the country’s GBV response. I wanted to ensure this didn't happen. The transformation you see in survivors is what keeps me going. They want to commit suicide, they have given up on everything. But through the medical and psychosocial support you can see them almost turning back to normalcy.
How has the GBV changed in Kenya?
I’ve been working in this space for 17 years and there has been some tremendous changes. There are national guidelines, laws and policies in place when before there were few. We also have specialised care. Trauma counselling; adherence counselling and crisis counselling can now more acutely serve the needs of patients and we also have different types of therapy through music and arts. But while medical and psychosocial treatment is far more accessible, there are gaps.
The time I have spent working in this sector has underlined how pervasive gender-based violence is in Kenya. I speak to strangers – even friends – about GBV and the reply is often “are you sure it happens to this magnitude?”
How do responders deal with the trauma?
Being a responder is so tough. So many people who do this job love it but at the same time, cannot continue. It’s a challenge to process the things one sees and hears. Every day you think you have seen the worst, but there is always something new. It affects you as a person – there’s transference sometimes – when you apply the stories of survivors to your own loved ones. I remember on my 27th birthday, I met a woman who was thoroughly beaten on her 27th wedding anniversary. Its traumatic. You become defensive with your friends and family, scared of interacting – paranoid and protective.
The wellbeing of our team is taken very seriously, and we have a number of tools to cope. We have external psychologists, and we have meaningful check-in sessions – virtually – where the team participate or discuss things that are not-work related.
How does GBV change across the country?
Attitudes differ very differently from region to region – you will also see a difference in the forms of violence in the different centres. For example, in Nairobi we may treat high levels of sexual violence – about 76%. In Kajiado County [south of Nairobi] intimate partner violence is highly prevalent. In Nakuru County, we are seeing a lot of child abuse. Child marriage is sometimes not even seen as problem.
Trends keep changing so we need to be dynamic – as schools close, there's an occurrence of more child abuse. At the end of the month you’ll see a rise in intimate partner violence driven by economic/livelihood pressures. During COVID GVRC experience its worst year in terms of cases: over 4000 survivors in 2020 including 208 teenage pregnancies, usually we might only see 15.
I’d love to wake up in the morning and be told there’s been no rape case reported. To have these provisions mainstreamed by government would represent a huge step. I know centres that try their best but they cannot afford to provide the medical treatment. We’re trying to get the GVRC model replicated into county-level hospitals so we can ensure access to comprehensive services across the country.