Profiles from the Front Lines of Transitional Justice: Jaqy Mutere Empowers Sexual Violence Survivors in Kenya


By Sam McCann

As ICTJ looks back on its 15 years of work, join us in celebrating our allies across the globe who struggle for human rights, against impunity. To honor their efforts in the trenches of this struggle, we will bring you their stories in the weeks and months to come.

We begin with Jaqy Mutere, who provides both an empathetic ear and a political voice to survivors of sexual violence in Kenya.

“I obviously have an easy time talking,” says Jaqy Mutere with a big smile. She always speaks with her hands, is quick to flash a grin and brims with passion when she talks. But you haven’t seen anything until you ask Jaqy about her daughter, Princess. Do that and she can barely contain herself.

“She’s seven and a piece of work,” Jaqy exclaims, slapping her knee and stretching her easy smile even wider. “She’s a doll… an easy, trouble-free child.”

“And,” Jaqy adds a bit more solemnly, “she’s the person who got me into all this.”

Jaqy was a widowed mother of four when violence erupted in her native Kenya following contested elections in December 2007. The chaos was enormous: over a 1,000 people died and 600,000 were displaced. Hundreds more, including Jaqy, were victims of sexual assault.

Weeks after she was raped, in early 2008, Jaqy discovered she was pregnant. She had no doubt what she wanted to do.

“I wanted to have an abortion,” she says. “I tried three times but it didn’t work.”

Abortion is illegal in most cases in Kenya, but Jaqy thought she could find a way. The first time she raised money for the procedure but her older daughter needed the funds to pay school fees. The second time, the back alley doctor she intended to visit was swept up in a government crackdown. Finally, at her last appointment, the doctor simply never showed up.

Deterred by roadblock after roadblock and still reeling emotionally and physically from the attack, Jaqy resigned herself to giving birth. “I just said: ‘let me just have this baby, and then I’ll just give the baby away.’”

Begrudgingly, Jaqy carried the pregnancy to term. After labor in a Nairobi hospital, she collapsed into her hospital bed and waited impatiently for the social worker to arrive. She wanted the child gone. She wanted her life back.

More than anything, she just wanted to sleep.

In this dazed state, Jaqy heard crying coming from a bundle beside her, just an arm’s length away. She called for the nurse to quiet the child, but no one was around. She tossed and turned, unable to get the rest she so desperately needed. She would have to quiet the child herself.

“I open this bundle and she is the pinkest, sweetest little baby. She didn’t look at me, she just cried very loudly,” Jaqy says.

She called the adoption off and brought Princess home with her.

Stigma and Struggle

While Jaqy immediately fell in love with her newborn daughter, the months after Princess’ birth were wrenching. She struggled to reconcile the resentment she felt towards the rape with the love she felt for Princess.

“You have just been hating the child and hating yourself for months,” she says. “There’s a lot of self-blame: ‘I could have done this better, I shouldn’t have done this. Maybe I should just die and end it all.’”

As she fought to forgive herself Jaqy endured flashbacks: consuming visions that dragged her back to her assault. Any mention of politics was a trigger, and when the visions came, they overwhelmed her: her body tightened and she imagined herself enduring the rape once more. Worse still, when she snapped back, she found herself glaring hatefully at her infant daughter.

Talking about it helped, especially with women who themselves had given birth to children conceived of rape. She began attending group therapy, where women talked about their own flashbacks and struggled with their own self-hate. In the course of these conversations, Jaqy began to forgive herself.

But she realized forgiveness came easier to her than it did to other women. Jaqy had a strong support network behind her: most members of her family and her late husband’s family have been extremely accommodating of her situation. She was older than most victims, many of whom were still teenagers, and she had been a mother before. Lacking her support and experiences, Jaqy saw the women in her therapy sessions continue to struggle.

Some of the women succumbed to the pain and committed suicide, or otherwise died as a result of their trauma. “In the past seven or so years, we have buried five ladies,” Jaqy explains. “The basic cause of death was depression. They just lost it, they just lost hope, it was just not worth it anymore. They just gave up.”

Jaqy also grew worried about the children born of rape. During the course of their group therapy, the women would visit each other’s homes for a cup of tea. When Jaqy visited others’ homes, what she saw disturbed her: mothers took their pain out on their child, becoming verbally and physically abusive. That treatment compounded the stigma the children endured from the society at large, which regarded them as products of 2007’s violence. Their future, if their mothers did not get help, looked grim.

“A child growing up with rejection doesn’t have to go to an Al-Shabbab training camp to become a thug,” Jaqy says. “By the sheer rejection of society you just become defensive and very aggressive. And you’ve just been given a gun and you’re told kill someone, so you have every reason.”

"“A child growing up with rejection doesn’t have to go to an Al-Shabbab training camp to become a thug. By the sheer rejection of society you just become defensive and very aggressive. And you’ve just been given a gun and you’re told kill someone, so you have every reason."

The fight, Jaqy realized, was too big for therapy sessions alone to address. Aside from the emotional wounds that they grappled with in therapy, the women had physical and political needs that weren’t being met. They needed reparations to support their children born of rape. They needed reform of the police services, which so tragically failed them. And they needed acknowledgement to restore their dignity in a society that often regarded them with scorn.

In short, they needed both an empathetic ear and a political voice. Jaqy felt a responsibility to offer both- and so Grace Agenda was born.

Telling Their Own Story

Today, Grace Agenda has grown to a network of 124 women, many of whom have children born out of sexual violence. What started with Jaqy and her fellow survivors sharing their struggles with each other has grown into powerful political advocacy. The act of telling stories is at once personally and politically empowering.

But it was not always this way. At first, Jaqy and the other members of Grace Agenda were invited by international organizations to tell their stories. Too often, the story-telling process felt exploitative, devoid of any kind of political aim – it was for others’ benefit, but not their own.

“[Organizations] called you when they wanted to hear gory stories,” Jaqy says. “They wanted you to make them cry, and make the crowd cry. ‘Oh, it’s awesome, and she has a child - oh my god!’ And then they’re after money.”

Donors would queue up after hearing her story, of course: Jaqy was not kidding about her speaking skills. But the money was not for her; instead she’d be left with a modest per-diem and no real avenues to political redress. So, when she founded Grace Agenda, she decided: “I wasn’t going to be anybody’s patsy.” Her stories were her tools, and justice for the women of her group therapy sessions, and the thousands like them across the country, became her aim.

Jaqy’s first major advocacy effort as part of Grace Agenda was to fight for the inclusion of survivors of sexual violence in government assistance programs established after the conflict. The government set up a 10 billion Kenyan shilling ($110m USD) Restoration Fund, but prioritized those who were displaced by the post-election violence, and left Jaqy demanding the government fulfill the rights of survivors of sexual assault.

“Our voice is lost in the bigger picture of reparations,” Jaqy says. “You can see somebody whose houses were burned, who was tortured, you can see somebody who was hacked or beaten up. But you cannot see rape. Our culture doesn’t recognize rape as an issue and so I’ve taken it upon myself to let them know that this group of people exists and they need reparations.”

The women of Grace Agenda started a letter-writing campaign, using their stories to call on parliament to include them in the Restoration Fund. They continue to demand that the Kenyan government fulfill its promise to provide reparations to victims of the post-election crisis and implement the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations. To date, the Reparations Fund remains a promise, because the money has yet to find its way into survivors’ hands.

“Next to God”

Jaqy and the women of Grace Agenda have also been leaders in the fight against police misconduct in Kenya. During the post-electoral turmoil, police officers were themselves perpetrators, and in the years since 2008 criminal police behavior has continued.

“Seeking accountability from any perpetrator can be difficult in Kenya. The national judicial system faces difficulties, and the International Criminal Court tried and failed to hold those most responsible for the post-election violence accountable. “If we cannot get justice in the ICC, forget about justice in Kenya,” Jaqy says.

The general difficulties facing any prosecution in Kenya are only magnified in the cases of police officers.

“In Kenya, police feel they are next to God. And they’re a very feared institution,” Jaqy says.

But in the absence of criminal justice for perpetrators, Jaqy wants to make sure that police officers guilty of sexual violence are removed from positions of power. To do so, Grace Agenda is once again leaning on the testimony of survivors.

“Seeking accountability from any perpetrator can be difficult in Kenya."

Members of Grace Agenda hosted seven forums in different parts of Kenya, asking victims of police violence to record their complaints. Few survivors were comfortable providing every piece of information asked of them, but Grace Agenda gathered as much information as possible – the officer’s name in a few cases, the nature of the violation, when and where it happened in others –in order to build a case. Information in hand, they submitted their findings to the National Police Service vetting office.

They did not receive a direct response, but about 500 officers were dismissed through vetting or for opting not to be vetted in the years 2015 and 2016. Jaqy hopes that this was at least in part because of the pressure her organization and others continue to exert.

Why She Fights

Progress has been slow in Kenya. While vetting processes remove some police officers guilty of crimes, many more carry on with impunity. And despite her coordinated campaign for reparations, the women of Grace Agenda, like thousands of other victims in Kenya, wait for their government to fulfill its promise.

Jaqy is doing her part to hold them to their word. Grace Agenda has set up working groups in both Nairobi and Busia, which offer victims support services while also agitating for broader political needs. The organization continues to grow, and Jaqy continues to take on more with it. It has not always been easy – since going public with her story, her children have been teased at school, and she has faced plenty of personal harassment herself.

But telling her story has been essential for Jaqy: a duty, she says, that has helped her make sense of her life and create an environment for her daughter to grow into the trouble-free child she is today.

“Until you get to that place where you’ve dealt with, until you get to the very bottom of the barrel and stirred up the mud and brought it up and brought it out, you really won’t have total healing,” she says.

Grace Agenda has helped her and other women throughout Kenya do exactly that. Now, Jaqy wants political action.

“I really do want the acknowledgement,” she says. “I want to see the President or his Deputy saying ‘This happened to these women. We are going to consider them in the reparations agenda and Jaqy, please come and help us do the work.’”

That’s the thing about Jaqy, though: she’s not waiting for an invitation to do the hard work of securing justice for survivors of sexual violence. She’s already on the ground, doing it.

PHOTOS: Jaqy Mutere at an ICTJ conference in Kampala, Uganda. (Sam McCann/ICTJ); Hundreds of Kenyans including human rights activists, lawyers and taxi operators hold a peaceful protest in Nairobi, Kenya, against alleged pervasive killings and disappearances linked to police. (AP Photo/Khalil Senosi).