At 16, Liz was beaten and repeatedly raped, then thrown unconscious into a pit latrine in Busia County, in Western Kenya. The local police doled out their own brand of "punishment": They ordered the assailants to cut the grass at the police station.
But after millions of people around the world petitioned for a stronger punishment, a trial began last year. And on Monday, three of her assailants were sentenced to 15 years in prison.
The attack happened in June 2013, when Liz (a pseudonym used by the Kenyan press to protect her identity) was walking home from her grandfather's funeral. She was ambushed by six men — some of whom she knew, and at least one of whom was close to her age. The injuries she suffered to her back were so severe that she needed to use a wheelchair to get around, and the gang rape was so violent that she developed obstetric fistula, an injury to her vaginal wall that left her incontinent.
Liz was found crawling out of the latrine and crying for help. When she identified her assailants, the police rounded them up and ordered them to cut grass as their only punishment. Then the police let them go — even though under Kenya's Sexual Offenses Act, they should have received no less than 15 years in prison.
Ordinarily it would have ended there.
The civil rights nonprofit Rural Education and Economic Enhancement Program, or REEP, has documented more than 8,000 cases of sexual violence against minors in Busia County alone. In many cases, the Kenyan police had taken no action at all, says Mary Makokha, REEP's director.
"I know children who have been sexually abused, and the case is dismissed, like, 'Oh, you are old enough,' " she says. "And sometimes the parents of the victim are told, 'Ach, go sort this at home.' "
"And it ends like that."
But Liz's case caught the attention of a reporter at Nairobi's Daily Nation. The story sparked an international petition called Justice for Liz. In two years, it garnered nearly 2 million signatures demanding that the police treat the case as a serious crime and not a misdemeanor.
When the police refused to re-arrest the assailants and Liz's family went into hiding after they were threatened, women's groups rallied in the streets of the county capital. Liz's story had become a watershed to bring the Kenyan government's attention to the victims of sexual violence.
Nairobi's chief prosecutor agreed last June to take Liz's case to court, as well as investigate 70 other cases of rape of minors in Busia.
For Makokha, who has been an advocate for women and girls since 1998, it felt like a miracle. "Cases that had been pending in court, people who had defiled the children and had never been arrested — within one month, more people were arrested than had been arrested in a year," she says.
"The tide has changed in Busia," says Kim Brown of Equality Now, a human rights organization assisting special prosecutors. She adds that "you see a new level of seriousness" about handling rape cases.
But the other assailants responsible for Liz's injuries are still at large — and they still have the support of people in the community.
When three of her attackers were sentenced Monday, Liz wasn't there. Funded by well-wishers in Nairobi, she's out of the wheelchair, had surgery to fix the fistula and is back in school. She and her parents and siblings have moved to a new town.
It's a "victory for people power," Sam Barratt, campaign director for the organization Avaaz, says in a statement.
"Liz's case had to be brought kicking and screaming into the courtroom," he says. "It proves that Kenyan courts can serve justice to survivors of rape, but only when the horror of the case creates a barrage of global outrage."
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Authorities in Kenya today sentenced three men to 15 years in prison for the gang rape of a teenage girl. Initially, local police had ordered the men to cut grass for the crime and that punishment provoked an international outcry. NPR's Gregory Warner looks at the case that shocked the Kenyan government into action.
GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Liz was walking home from her grandfather's funeral when she was ambushed by the six men, some of whom she knew. Liz, whose last name is withheld to protect her identity, was raped and thrown, unconscious, into a pit latrine. The injuries to her back left her in a wheelchair. The gang rape was so violent that the 16-year-old developed obstetric fistula, an injury to her vaginal wall that left her incontinent. Mary Makokha is a civil rights activist in Busia County in far western Kenya on the border with Uganda. She says in many of these cases, Kenyan police would take no action at all.
MARY MAKOKHA: I know children who have been sexually abused and the case is dismissed like oh, you are old enough. Or sometimes the parents of the victim are told ah, go and sort this at home, and it ends like that.
WARNER: Liz's case might have ended there, but the police went one step further. They decided that the punishment for the rapists would be to mow the lawn at the police station. That detail caught the attention of a Nairobi reporter, whose story sparked an international petition - Justice for Liz - that garnered more than a million signatures. Still, police refused to re-arrest the assailants. Liz's family was threatened by locals and had to go into hiding. Women's groups held rallies. The county governor and the chief prosecutor in Nairobi called for investigations into Liz's case and more than 70 cases of rapes of girls under 18. For Makokha, who's been advocating on this issue for almost two decades, it felt like a sea change.
MAKOKHA: Cases that had been pending in court, people who had defiled the children and had never been arrested, like, within one month, more people are arrested than had been arrested within a year.
WARNER: Three of Liz's attackers have so far evaded capture. There is still local support for them. But when the other three were sentenced today, a number of rape survivors were in attendance. They wanted to be there when the judge delivered the verdict. Only Liz was not there. She's in witness protection. Well-wishers in Nairobi who read about her case, paid for her fistula surgery, her medical treatment and her relocation. She's out of the wheelchair and back in school, in a new house in a new town. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Nairobi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.