ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
In Kenya, hundreds of people protested on the streets of Nairobi today, demanding justice for a 16-year-old gang rape victim. The girl was attacked so brutally that she's now confined to a wheelchair with a severe back injury. Police apprehended the alleged rapists. But after being ordered to cut the lawn at the police station, they were let go. NPR's Gregory Warner reports from Nairobi.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Several hundred people stopped traffic on Nairobi's Central Kenyatta Street this morning. They carried cardboard boxes representing the more than 1.2 million online signatures on a petition called Justice for Liz. Liz is a pseudonym for the girl in this case. Ngozi Nwosu, an activist from Nigeria joining the march, said she was struck by how many Kenyan men were marching with them.
NGOZI NWOSU: There are men joining women, to speak against rape. But in Nigeria, women almost like, stand alone. Kenya is doing well in terms of standing up against injustice.
WARNER: In Kenya, where most rapes go unnoticed and unreported, this case has struck a chord.
NEBILA ABDULMELIK: I think everything about this case was so outrageous.
WARNER: Nebila Abdulmelik wrote the petition in these cardboard boxes. It calls for the perpetrators to be arrested, and the police officers disciplined. On June 24th, Liz was walking home from her grandfather's funeral when she was ambushed by six men: one, age 17; the others, 18.
ABDULMELIK: She was beaten and gang raped, and dumped in the pit latrine.
WARNER: But when she identified three of her attackers to the police, they ordered them to cut grass around the police station.
ABDULMELIK: I think it emboldens others to also rape.
WARNER: The case lay idle for months. Liz's mom had to lease the family farm to afford the hospital. But then a newspaper reporter picked up the story, and the activism that followed showcased a Kenya that is increasingly wired and middle class. Kenyans used Twitter and Facebook to bring media attention to the case, and mobile money transfer campaigns to raise thousands of dollars from ordinary Kenyans for her care. Doctors now say that Liz, who is currently in a wheelchair, will be able to walk again next month, thanks to back surgery.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
SAIDA ALI: But what we are demanding for is justice.
WARNER: Saida Ali is executive director of the Coalition on Violence Against Women, based in Kenya.
ALI: So it's very good that people step in and give money. However, the police still need to make an arrest. The prosecution and eventual punishment need to happen.
WARNER: Ali paints a picture of two Kenyas: one where enough people have the education and means to help a girl like Liz; the other Kenya rife with corrupt institutions that she says are shielding the perpetrators. Kenya has very strict sexual-violence laws on the books. But another marcher, Ruth Ojiambo Ocheing, is executive director of Isis-Wicce in Uganda. She says these kind of laws, pushed by Western governments, are also on the books in many African countries.
RUTH OJIAMBO OCHEING: It means nothing. It means - and by the way, they have now known that the West, they believe so much in those laws. So it's very easy for us to go and to do all the signing. But it stops on the shelves.
WARNER: Marchers today tried to take those laws off the shelves with a dose of public shame. They hanged placards and panties on the spiked-metal gates of the police headquarters. The inspector general's chief of staff, William Thwere, came to the gates to accept the petition. He said police were searching for the perpetrators, who had gone into hiding; and he also promised to discipline police officers if they were found to have committed wrongdoing.
Activists were happy with the results but Saida Ali, of the Coalition on Violence Against Women, said the longer this investigation drags on, the more she fears some police in Busia County - where the girl lives - could try to pressure her to recant her story.
ALI: It raises concerns around security for Liz and her mother. And intimidation can take different forms.
WARNER: Her biggest fear was a clash of these two Kenyas in which a brazen public protest in Nairobi puts Liz and her mother, in rural Kenya, in real danger.
Gregory Warner, NPR News, Nairobi.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.