©Marcelo Schneider/WCC

©Marcelo Schneider/WCC

On 12 March, Jane Murenga, a head teacher at a local Anglican Church-sponsored primary school, was raped and murdered in Githure village, Kirinyaga County in Kenya. She was hosting her younger sister at her home. She left the main house to take a shower in the bathroom which is detached from the house. Her sister decided to check on her, only to find her on the ground lifeless with a man on top of her, raping her.

The news of her death reached Rev. Pauline Wanjiru Njiru, East Africa regional coordinator for the World Council of Churches Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiatives and Advocacy, in New York where she was attending the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW61) which this year is focusing economic empowerment. At the top of the agenda for the Ecumenical Women was ending sexual gender-based violence.

Unfortunately, the rapist escaped and, in the same afternoon, he raped an elderly woman in the same neighborhood after seriously injuring her to silence her. Murenga's body was laid to rest on 22 March at her home. Thousands of mourners gathered at St Stephens Anglican Church in Githure to mourn and eulogize a loved one. Speaker after speaker condemned the manner in which Murenga lost her life.

County and national government officials - both civil servants and elected leaders - condemned the act and blamed it on the abuse of drugs and alcohol. Elected leaders promised to deal precisely with those brewing illicit beer and those peddling drugs. Sadly, the leaders praised those in the community who had taken the law into their own hands. On realizing the police had not arrested the rapist and murderer, people caught up with him. Within a few days he was killed by what is commonly known as “mob justice” in Kenya.

The mood of the funeral service was shrouded with anger, fear, frustration, bitterness and pain of all sorts. Everyone was angry that their teacher had lost her life. Her husband broke down many times during the service so did her two sons. While Jane had been raped and murdered, the rape aspect was not brought to light, as speaker after speaker condemned the murder strongly.

Lack of mentioning the rape was telling, as it appears to suggest that the rape was a lesser crime. The local administrator said that the death of the assailant had brought calm to the village since, for three days, women stayed indoors, bringing the economic activities in the village to a halt. A clergywoman sitting next to Njiru during the funeral service confirmed that most women remained indoors until it was announced that the young man had been murdered by mob justice.

Bishop Joseph Kibuchwa, of the Anglican Diocese of Kirinyaga, condemned the murder and encouraged Christians to question God. The bishop’s sermon, based on Mark 4:30-41, demonstrated that God has power over all things, all evil, even nature. He asked how the village - the church and the government - could work together on major issues that are affecting the education system, such as lower student enrollment, drug and alcohol abuse, and now murder.

The archdeacon, Venerable Emily Wanja, named rape as one of the evils that was pulling the village backward. She said that young children and women had reported having been raped but not much had been done. Alongside rape, she said, school children were abusing alcohol and drugs. She called upon the community to speak out about the vices and called upon leaders to act to make the village a safer place for women and girls.

Njiru, who hails from this community and was a schoolmate of Murenga’s, called upon church leaders and the government to address violence against women, especially rape.  “Violence against women is a key hindrance to women’s economic empowerment,” she said. “I call upon women to report all forms of violence to the authorities and urge the leaders to protect women by apprehending the perpetrators and, in so doing, making the village safe for women and girls.”

The death of two people and the rape of an elderly woman was an eye opener for the community that legal and security systems are lacking. During the funeral, leader after leader - clergy, civil servants and politicians - praised the community mob justice but this raised more questions than answers.

The young men in the community vowed to disrupt the perpetrator’s funeral which was scheduled for the following day. They wanted to carry out more mob justice by refusing to allow the burial to continue and instead burn the body of the perpetrator. But on learning about the plan, the family of the young man arranged a private funeral which was done concurrently with Murenga’s funeral.

Murenga was married to Samson Murenga and blessed with two sons, Njagi and Murimi.  Her rape, murder, and the mob justice is not an isolated case but a tragic indication of our need, as faith communities, to affirm and transform lives.

In response, Njiru plans to scale up the “Thursdays in Black” - a campaign against sexual and gender-based violence and violence in general - in her home church and community. She also plans to use contextual Bible study, especially for the rape narratives, including 2 Samuel 13:1-22 (the rape of Tamar) to raise awareness of this taboo subject and to empower women and girls (who are often easy prey) to name, speak out and report rape in all its forms.

She plans to build the capacity of the church leaders, who are gate keepers and can work well to transform a community, to speak out and act against rape and sexual and gender-based violence of all forms.

With resources, Njiru would be able to help the local faith community to work with perpetrators, who are mainly jobless youths and give them skills to help them leave their evil ways and be transformed to build their community. “This is a conversation I have had several times with local community and church leaders,” she said.

Thursdays in Black: zero tolerance for violence against women

Learn more about the WCC's work on Just Community of Women and Men

Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace

WCC member churches in Kenya