Agnes Tirop’s murder and the shadow pandemic of gender-based violence

By Harper Cleves

On Wednesday, 13 October 25-year-old Kenyan long-distance runner Agnes Tirop was found tragically murdered in her home in Iten, Kenya. Her husband has been arrested as the prime suspect in this horrifically brutal crime. Tirop’s family have reported that Agnes had recently moved out of the shared home with her husband due to fears for her life, and believe she was lured back under false pretenses. As is the case for millions of women globally, the most dangerous point in Agnes’ life was making the decision to leave a violent relationship. 

Kenya, as a part of a global phenomenon, has seen a dramatic spike in intimate partner violence and femicide over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic. The limiting of physical movement imposed by lockdowns globally posed a particular risk to people in abusive relationships. The National Crime Research Centre (NCRC) reported that gender-based violence cases increased by 87.7% from April to June of 2020 when some of the harshest lockdown measures restricting mobility were in place. 

The horrors of lockdown 

The job losses that took place over the course of the pandemic in Kenya compounded the already stark economic precarity of many, limiting their ability to leave dangerous relationships and living situations. Pre-pandemic, the informal sector — meaning unregulated, untaxed, and often unpaid and precarious work — constituted 83.6% of the Kenyan economy and 33.8% of the national GDP. These workers were hit hardest by pandemic job losses, and did not qualify for government assistance. Women impacted by informal sector job losses were financially as well as physically restricted from leaving abusive partners.

Furthermore, while all women are potentially at risk when it comes to gender-based violence, the  most vulnerable populations in Kenya were disproportionately impacted. In August 2020 a NTV Kenya investigation revealed that there were more than 200 cases of rape of children in an informal settlement in Nairobi. Human Rights Watch reported that women and girls living in the most precarious economic conditions were often manipulated by men in their communities, sometimes lured with gifts of food or sanitary pads into dangerous situations. 

Repression and pandemic

In Kenya, the imposition of Covid-related curfews and the extension of police powers in this context proved dangerous and deadly to the working class and poor. Tear gas, beatings, and the kettling of crowds were filmed in Mombasa and Nairobi. In March 2020, a 13 year-old-boy was shot and killed by the police for being out 20 minutes past curfew. In such a climate, women and children suffering abuse have very few places to turn to for support. 

Meanwhile, the profiteering approach of vaccine distribution, as well as capitalist underdevelopment of the neocolonial world, has led to a situation in which only 2.2% of the population in Kenya has been vaccinated, meaning that people in abusive relationships are continuing to look into a future of continued lockdowns, and/or facing exposure to a deadly virus.

Covid-19, housing crises, police brutality, unemployment: all of these factors, which impact all working-class and poor people, also contribute to the dangerous situation faced by women and all victims of gender-based violence. This suggests that any serious approach to tackling the pandemic of gender violence has to take on the system as a whole and must be rooted in solidarity. 

Ni una menos!

Agnes Tirop’s heart-wrenching end struck a chord not simply because of her athletic feats, but because her story is mirrored in the experiences of so many people globally. From daily experiences of misogyny, to the attacks on abortion rights in places like the United States, Poland and China, to the poverty, precarity, and exploitation experienced by the working class and poor globally. It has become increasingly obvious that the system has no regard for women and the working class, and will continue to do everything it can to generate profits, even at the expense of human life. 

The good news is that a generation of young people, women and workers are making their voices heard. They refuse to be dragged back into the dark ages and accept a macho, violent, and exploitative culture. The “Ni Una Menos” movement in Latin America, and the #metoo movement in the US have had ripple effects, inspiring workplace actions, college and school demonstrations and feminist strikes around the world. In order to honour the life of Agnes and all people lost to gender-based violence, we need to build a socialist feminist, working-class movement that tackles misogyny at its root, and strives for a world run by the oppressed and exploited for the needs of all, rather than a minority of self-interested elites.