WAJIR, Kenya (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Mariam Mohammed was 15 when her uncle raped her in the family hut in Wajir, northeastern Kenya.
“He told me to make the bed, he gripped my throat so I couldn’t scream, and then he hurt me,” she recalled, nervously drawing in the red sand with a twig while cradling a baby boy.
Her mother found out about her ordeal when it became too difficult to hide her pregnancy. She immediately informed the village elders in their pastoralist community.
“But they did nothing, and suggested Mariam just marry her uncle,” Fatouma Mohammed, her mother, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, her eyes full of anger. “So I decided to leave and take my children back to my mother’s.”
Mariam’s story is far from uncommon in this Kenyan region bordering Somalia, home to many ethnic Somali families. Girls from pastoralist communities often must watch animals instead of going to school, and walk long distances to fetch water – making them an easy target for abusers.
Prolonged drought is making matters worse, development workers in the area say.
“Somali pastoralists are extremely proud. If they lose their animals, they are no one,” said Suli Abdi Buhad, the gender team leader at Mercy Corps, a humanitarian aid agency.
“That leaves them unoccupied, even depressed, and can turn many into violent men,” she said.
Abdi Buhad is part of a group of women and men – drawn from community members, police officers, journalists, health workers, and non-governmental organizations, among others – who last year set up a gender support desk and hotline in Wajir for victims of violence.
Once a girl calls the toll-free number, the group alerts a local colleague or police officer, who investigates the accusation while providing the victim with moral and medical support.
If the allegation is found to be substantiated and the victim is willing to come forward, the gender desk helps her bring the case to court.
The initiative, which is part of the Building Resilience and Adaptation to Climate Extremes and Disasters (BRACED) program, is funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and led by Mercy Corps.
Ubah Adan, director of the county department of gender, social and cultural services and also a member of the group, explained that, all too often, cases of rape and sexual assault in Wajir are settled by religious leaders, usually with compensation – a traditional form of Islamic law called maslaha.
“They (elders) will order the culprit’s clan to give the victim’s family 100 camels, as punishment, which never go to the victim anyway,” she said.
Of the few cases that do go to court, about one in three are dismissed due to a lack of evidence or the victim retracting her accusation, she said.
Fatouma Mohammed, whose daughter’s case is now being tried before a Wajir court, thanks to support from the gender group, said both of them routinely receive hate threats from her brother-in-law’s family.
“But we won’t give up,” she said.
The gender desk’s efforts are starting to bear fruit. Adan said that in the past year nine cases of violence against women and girls have been tried, all of which resulted in jail sentences.
In 2015, only two such cases ended in jail sentences, she said.
In addition to seeking justice for victims of violence, the gender desk aims to shift traditional, patriarchal attitudes towards women and girls.
Abdi Buhad said the group is trying to make men part of the solution, by identifying “gender champions” and convincing those men to speak out on local radio against violence and to promote gender equality.
“We’ve started at home, by training our own husbands,” she laughed. “We want them to tell other men that it’s okay to change your baby’s nappy or cook for your wife.”
She wants men to learn to adopt more resilient attitudes, similar to what she called women’s “fighting spirit”.
“If a man loses his animals it’s the end of the world,” she said. “But if the same thing happens to a woman, she’ll just make tea and chapatis, sell them at the market and come back with the money.”
Some of the women have received threats, however, and even been assaulted in retaliation for their work.
Sophie Gedi, who calls herself “the oldest activist in Wajir” - she’s in her late 50s - said she was stabbed in the face and bitten in the arm by a man for teaching girls to express themselves through dancing, “because he didn’t like what I was doing to our culture.”
Worsening drought has exacerbated already high levels of violence against women and girls, especially among pastoralist communities, said Diyad Hujale, program coordinator at Mercy Corps.
“This year’s drought has been particularly bad, causing pastoralists from Wajir to move to the north of the county – where there is more rain – and fueling conflict for land and water,” he said.
Girls and women are often caught in the middle of disputes, he added.
“Some pastoralists think that if you want to send a political message, to threaten another clan, you rape a girl,” he said.
In the worst cases, girls are killed, he said. And “sometimes (her) body is even mutilated to distress the family. That type of conflict is extremely hard to resolve.”
He hopes that by laying criminal charges against one person - rather than allowing responsibility for the violence to be attributed to an entire clan - the escalation of violence among groups can be reduced, along with the intimidation of victims that often follows.
Adan said one of the biggest challenges facing the group is a lack of funds.
“We’re hoping for a bill to pass at the county level that would give us public funding as well as a board, which could help us lobby the government for policy change,” she said.
Funding also would help the group build a much-needed shelter for victims of sexual violence, she added.
“Far from receiving compassion, they are considered ‘sullied’ and rejected by their own families,” she said.
For now, many victims like Mariam are still waiting for justice. Her case is ongoing, pending a DNA test that would prove her uncle is her baby’s father.
The test costs over 20,000 Kenyan shillings (about $194) and needs to be done in Nairobi, the capital, over 600km from Wajir.
“That’s too expensive, and too far,” said Fatouma Mohammed, squeezing her daughter’s hand.
Mariam, who now refuses to venture outside her home alone, said she “almost wants him (her uncle) to be exonerated, so we can try to forget about all of this”.
“Even though I know I will never forget,” she said.
Reporting by Zoe Tabary @zoetabary, editing by Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit news.trust.org/climate