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Kenyan Olympian’s Killing Exposes Surge of Violence Against Women

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NAIROBI, Kenya — The long-distance Kenyan runner Agnes Jebet Tirop was having a very good year. She competed in the Tokyo Olympics in August, set a new world record in the women’s 10-kilometer race in Germany in September and was widely seen as a rising star in her country’s highly competitive running circuit.

But on Oct. 13, Ms. Tirop was found stabbed to death in her home in the Rift Valley of western Kenya. Her husband was arrested in her killing as he tried to flee to a neighboring country, the authorities said.

Ms. Tirop, who was 25 years old and a two-time World Championship bronze medalist, had told fellow athletes that he had threatened to break her legs and kill her. He has not yet been charged.

Her killing, just days after her last race in Switzerland, was a shock that energized a conversation in Kenya over how to combat violence against women, a longstanding problem. In the conservative nation, where domestic and sexual violence is largely seen as a private matter, Ms. Tirop’s case and an increase in abuse during Covid-19 lockdowns have spurred calls to break the silence on gender-based attacks.

“Violence against women and girls in Kenya is of pandemic proportions,” said Agnes Odhiambo, a senior researcher on women’s rights at Human Rights Watch in Nairobi.

“The story of Agnes should give us pause,” she said, as it reflects “the very big number of women who are murdered and killed in this country every day.”

Ms. Tirop’s killing has called attention to the everyday harassment and danger that many Kenyan women face and to the pressures confronting female athletes at home even as they race to stardom abroad. Domestic violence is not an aberration affecting only poor or rural women, activists said, but one that afflicts those with means and status, too.

The case has drawn intense scrutiny in Kenya, where the authorities have been criticized for failing to provide adequate legal, health and financial support to women facing domestic violence. But it also comes as widely publicized cases around the world — from Britain to China, Guatemala to the United States — highlight how widespread violence against women is and the despair many feel about their safety at home, at work or in the streets.

In Kenya, 45 percent of women between 15 and 49 report having “experienced physical violence,” with the main perpetrators being husbands and partners, according to the latest available government data from 2015. Experts believe the figures are higher, and worsening, with many women not reporting attacks or seeking help.

Reported cases of violence against women and girls increased during the pandemic as the government put broad restrictions in place to stem the coronavirus pandemic. Last month, a Human Rights Watch report on Kenya documented a rise in sexual abuse, beatings, forced child marriage and female genital mutilation during the lockdown and nightly curfew that President Uhuru Kenyatta lifted last week.

Other killings this month in Kenya have made clear the problem is ongoing. Early this month, Cynthia Makokha, a student at the Kibera Girls Soccer Academy in Nairobi, was raped and killed and her body dumped in a river as she went to see her family in western Kenya. Edith Muthoni, who hoped to make it as an international athlete, was killed in central Kenya, with the authorities remanding her boyfriend. And in the southwest of the country, a group of men cut a woman’s throat with a machete after accusing her of being a witch.

Teachers and students at the Kibera Girls Soccer Academy in Nairobi, Kenya, rallied after a memorial service for Cynthia Makokha this month.Credit…Thomas Mukoya/Reuters

And yet, not even these grim cases have motivated officials to prioritize women’s well-being, some say.

“No one is talking about women’s safety in this country. It’s seen as a nonissue,” said Adelle Onyango, co-author and co-editor of the upcoming book “Our Broken Silence,” a collection of essays and diary entries by fellow assault survivors and their relatives.

“With each story that comes, it’s deflating,” she said. “And I wonder, ‘Is this ever going to end?’”

While the government has committed to taking steps end gender-based and sexual violence in five years, activists say those measures are not nearly enough.

The authorities have yet to commit to help abused women obtain timely medical treatment, seek protection in shelters or even access police and legal services, Ms. Odhiambo said, urging top officials to regularly hold government institutions accountable on the progress they are making.

“At the end of the day,” she said, “the legal responsibility lies with the Kenyan government to prevent the killing, the rape, the beating and the harassment of women.”

Abigail Arunga, who regularly writes about domestic and sexual violence as a columnist with Kenya’s leading newspaper, Daily Nation, said media coverage must also stop blaming women for their own deaths.

“We don’t die because we walked in a dark alley,” she said. “We die because a man killed us.” Ms. Arunga added: “We need to frame the issue not as a woman’s problem or a societal problem. It’s a man’s problem.”

On Friday, thousands of Kenyan athletes and coaches alongside residents of the town of Eldoret in western Kenya joined in a procession remembering Ms. Tirop. Some carried a banner with her photograph and a call to “End Gender-Based Violence.”

Ms. Tirop’s husband, Ibrahim Rotich, is being held as investigations continue and his fitness to stand trial is assessed. The police have given no motive, and it appears Ms. Tirop had never filed a complaint against him.

On Saturday, on what would have been her 26th birthday, Ms. Tirop was laid to rest in a village in Nandi County along the Rift Valley. Hundreds of mourners, including officials and famous runners, tossed red and yellow rose petals on her white coffin, some crying at the loss.

“I am standing here because something has to be done,” Violah Cheptoo Lagat, a Kenyan athlete, said at the funeral. “We are putting our sister to rest, but we are here to also raise our voices. We need to be heard as women. We need people to understand we are not tools. We are not anyone’s property.”

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