University of Cambridge > > Centre of African Studies Michaelmas Seminars > The Prosecution of Rape in Wartime: Evidence From Kenya, 1952-1960

The Prosecution of Rape in Wartime: Evidence From Kenya, 1952-1960

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In July 2012, a landmark hearing before the High Court in London found that the British government had a case to answer concerning human rights abuses, including torture and rapes, allegedly carried out by British colonialists in Kenya, during the Mau Mau counter-insurgency of the 1950s. Amongst the four elderly Kenyan claimants in court that day was a Kikuyu woman, Jane Mara, whose testimony related the sexual abuses she suffered. This was the first time that such a story of sexual crimes in the former colonies had been laid before a British court, but for Kenyans the detail of these claims was all too familiar.

This article uses new documentary evidence on rape from Kenya in the 1950s, corroborating and enlarging upon the legal and oral testimonies and memoirs that have been recounted in recent court proceedings. Accusations of rapes and sexual assaults by state security personnel are littered through the substantial body of new archival material that has been released as a consequence of the Mau Mau compensation case mounted in the High Court in London from 2011 to 2013. Known collectively as the Hanslope Disclosure, and covering 36 other former British colonies as well as Kenya, this body of material (nearly 9,000 files in all) includes approximately 600 files dealing with the administration of the Kenyan rebellion. A significant number of these files relate specifically to the investigation and prosecution of allegations against the security forces between 1953 and 1959, including cases of rape and sexual other crimes.

This documentary evidence is powerful and important precisely because it relates to specific cases where investigations – and sometimes prosecutions – were initiated by the state. These assaults were committed upon civilian Kikuyu women by African and British agents of the colonial state. Decisions to prosecute related to the discipline and control of the security forces. For the colonial authorities, rape was a “difficult” charge, and many more case were notified than were ultimately prosecuted. The evidence on these cases thus provides a unique insight as to the way that rape in was treated in a colonial context during the 1950s, and adds to the small but growing body of literature that addresses the question of how sexual crimes are (or are not) prosecuted in wartime. Rape in 1950s Kenya was not a “weapon of war”, but it was a widespread and potent element of the counter-insurgency.

This talk is part of the Centre of African Studies Michaelmas Seminars series.

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