Low-Cost DNA Kits Could Decrease Rate of Unreported, Unprosecuted Rapes in Kenya

Wangu Kanja, right, speaks during the Religions for Peace conference in Lindau, Germany, on Aug. 22, 2019. Lisa Smith is on the left. Photo by Christian Flemming/Religions for Peace

Two women, one an activist and a survivor of sexual assault and the other a criminologist and university professor, are working on an initiative they hope could change the way rape is treated in the developing world.

The plan, which would create a low-cost, portable, easy-to-use kit for making it easier to identify rapists, is the brainchild of Kenyan activist Wangu Kanja and Lisa Smith, a Canadian criminologist teaching at the U.K.’s University of Leicester.

With the financial and logistical help of churches and religious organizations, plus visibility gained at the 10th Religions for Peace summit recently held in Germany, Kanja and Smith are preparing to roll out a pilot project in Kenya late this year or in early 2020.

Kenya, in red, located in eastern Africa.
Map courtesy of Creative Commons

Kanja, then 27, was raped in 2002 in Nairobi by a man who had just robbed her and her friends. The man was never caught.

Rape remains a serious problem across Africa. Though reliable statistics are hard to come by, the U.S. Agency for International Development estimates that in Kanja’s home country, Kenya, at least 1 in 7 women are sexually assaulted at some point.

Kanja said her assault sent her into a downward spiral of depression. Eventually, however, her depression turned to motivation — and she vowed to help people who had suffered as she had. She founded the Wangu Kanja Foundation, which collects data on sexual assaults and offers support to victims.

Years later, Kanja and Smith met at a conference, where they compared notes. Over time, the idea of the kit they are developing came into focus.

“A lot of rape victims in poor countries live too far from a hospital for them to be tested in time,” Smith said. “Sometimes they are too ashamed to admit to the rape and to be examined, or they are worried about cost, or they are scared the perpetrators will find out and find them again.”

Smith noted that because of those reasons and others, most rape cases go unreported. Even when they are reported, she said, rapists are often let off because of insufficient evidence.

That is where the kit Kanja and Smith are developing can come into play. The kits fit into a container smaller than a shoebox and include everything needed to collect DNA samples from a rapist’s blood, saliva, or semen. The kits are expected to cost between $12 and $18 each.

“Once the kits are in the field, it will remove a lot of barriers,” Smith said. “The challenge becomes assuring the girl or woman will get tested within three days.”

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Source: Religion News Service