Several hundred women in Kenya protested Thursday over what they said was lenient punishment for suspects of an alleged brutal gang rape of a girl earlier this year.
The protesters marched on police headquarters in the Kenyan capital Nairobi to deliver a petition of over a million names demanding justice and decrying what they say is a lack of action against three suspects, who were arrested shortly after the attack and then let go after being ordered to cut grass at the police station.
Nebila Abdulmelik, head of communications at FEMNET, a women's rights organization in Africa, called for the arrest of the suspects and action against authorities. Abdulmelik launched the petition, which has been publicized by the online activist group Avaaz, on Monday and it now has more than 1.3 million signatures.
"The petition demands for two things -- one is the immediate arrest and prosecution of the perpetrators and number two is disciplinary action on the police, who we feel handled the case very dismally and in fact are emboldening others to rape and commit similar crimes," Abdulmelik told Al Jazeera.
The teenager, a 16-year-old girl publicly identified as only "Liz," was reportedly attacked, beaten and then raped by six men as she returned from her grandfather's funeral in western Kenya in June. Her attackers then dumped her, bleeding and unconscious, in a deep sewage ditch.
"My wish is to see justice done," Liz also told the Daily Nation newspaper. "I want my attackers arrested and punished."
The online activist group Avaaz said Liz is now wheelchair-bound with a broken back, caused either by the beating or by being thrown into the pit, and also suffered serious internal injuries from the rape.
Just a few days ago amid the ongoing protests, the Inspector General of Police David Kimaiyo said the suspected rapists had been arrested, but on Thursday, another official contradicted Kimaiyo and indicated the suspects were still being sought.
"I am aware that the culprits are at large and we are looking for them wherever they are and they will soon be arrested and be taken to court," police Chief of Staff William Thwere said.
It isn't clear if the search has been ongoing or was revived due to pressure from civil society.
The lack of action has sparked outrage in the country. Protesters marched through the streets of the Kenyan capital wearing t-shirts with the slogan "Justice for Liz," with activists draping dozens of pairs of women's underwear along the fence of the police station.
"What do we want? Respect, respect, respect, dignity!" they shouted.
"Slashing grass is not punishment for rape," a sign carried by a protester read.
Rape is a major problem in Kenya, and perpetrators often goes unpunished.
One government study in 2009 found that as many as a fifth of women and girls were victims of sexual violence, and more recent studies have put the rate even higher.
Another U.N.-backed government study in 2010 focusing on children found a third of girls and a fifth of boys had suffered sexual violence.
Al Jazeera and wire services