Blaise Wangari and Immaculate Ojiambo are both 12 and in Class Seven. Under the mentorship of Claire Nasike and Stephenie Ojiambo they have never felt more enlightened – about their sexuality.
They also have a rough understanding women rights and by extension their rights. The place they call home, Port Victoria, in Budalang'i, on the banks of Lake Victoria is rife with pregnant primary school girls. Here, their teacher Madam Resla Olumbe says, is the hub of dropouts. The young girls confess to having friends who are no longer in school: forced to stop school because of a pregnancy.
“I lose about five girls every term,” Resla, who is also the deputy head teacher at Port Mixed Primary, says. “I blame it on poverty and almost nonexistent concern by parents towards the safety of their children. Parents are busy fishing offshore – for days on end – and few appear careful to protect their young daughters against sex pests.”
Meanwhile, at Mukuru kwa Njenga slums in Nairobi, Ann, a middle-aged mother still feels the scars from a rape incident three years ago. She had been walking a distance of less than one kilometre, “going home after closing my food kiosk,” when a bunch of nutty crooks appeared at the corridor, stole her day’s earnings and raped her.
“It is hard to live with such memories,” she says. “I couldn’t even bring myself to tell my husband about the incident. I feared he would leave me if he found out that another man had touched me.”
Under a programme titled ‘She Can’, Action Aid, a non-governmental organisation, conducted surveys on women’s safety and reproductive health rights. Their findings, captured in a report, show that women and girls in Kenya largely feel unsafe.
The report captures the surreal views of a woman residing in a Nairobi slum: “We say ‘my dress my choice’ but at the back of our minds we are petrified by what will happen to us when we dress in ways that men judge as sexual. Even within Nairobi’s major streets women have been stripped naked. That can happen to any of us.”
The report also alludes to the extent of abuse perpetrated on women. From being touched by men to being threatened with death, women suffer pretty much anything.
“It is a very sad state of affairs that Kenyan women have to live in fear of terror meted out by men (and sometimes women) who ought to protect them. Our research shows that when cases of rape and sexual violence are reported at police stations, they are not treated as serious. The government can and should do more to protect women from sexual violence. It strikes at the heart of womanhood; destroying lives in the process,” says Agnes Madi, women rights programme director at Action Aid International Kenya.
But then there exists subtle attacks on women that are yet to be identified. According to Wandia Maina, a counselling psychologist in Nairobi, a man starts abusing a woman in the mind before progressing into a physical attack. At times, like it was witnessed recently, men in professional positions can abuse trust, taking advantage of women and using them for their own pleasure.
Even in marriage
“We put doctors and other professionals on a pedestal,” says Wandia, “the truth is, some may actually use it to achieve sociopathic objectives.”
Wandia believes that any man who forces a woman into an act, without her consent, is guilty of sexual violence. This, she adds, applies even within marriage where a husband forces his wife into intimacy when she is not ready or prepared for it. The result of which she says can be detrimental to emotional and psychological health.
The recent case of Mugo wa Wairimu, a man who raped his patients under anesthesia, captured the public psyche just by its despicability. The man, it would later emerge, is not registered at the Kenya Medical practitioners and dentists board, which then officially unmasks him as a quack.
“We do have cases of malpractice and negligence. So far none is of the nature of rape. Doctors are there to treat and help people who come through their hands. Our job is to ensure that everyone licensed to practice has achieved proven standards of ethics,” Daniel Yumbya, the CEO of the medical board, says.
This notwithstanding, Wandia is convinced that men who look down upon women through the lenses of tradition can easily abuse women regardless of the pedigree they have achieved in their respective professional lines of work.
Upon promulgation of the Constitution, laws on sexual violence were tightened. According to Anne Mburu of Musyimi advocates, says that there are many forms of sexual offences but circumstances make it difficult for successful prosecution. For instance, rape within marriage goes largely unmitigated.
Anne says: “Rape that happens in a marital bed is particularly stubborn to establish. For the perpetrator to be found guilty proof that the sex was not consensual has to be established. Both parties were in the right place at the right time; ‘doing’ what is expected between couples. Plus, by the time a wife is taking her husband to court for rape, is their marriage headed for divorce or is it a normal healthy relationship?”
From her point of view, whether rape happens in marriage or not is not the right question to ask. Rather, what many should ask is whether it is possible to prosecute perpetrators, who often are powerful men who view their wives as toys to sweeten their lives.
At a women rights forum held last year at Sarova Panafric in Nairobi, activist Daisy Amdany commented that many women around the country don’t yet understand what a sexual offence is. “The result is that many go through abuse and can only watch from the sidelines as their daughters experience the same,” she said.
The debate rages on: what is sexual offence?
It is time to stand up for your rights
Claire Nasike, at 24, is already mentoring girls in her village and informing them about their rights.
“Culture has made women here second class citizens. Men occupy all the spaces of power and command everything. But when trouble strikes, it is the women who suffer the most.
And for many in the rural, as Claire has observed, “young girls (and even women) don’t know that when an uncle promises them goodies for sex it is actually abuse. They don’t know that as long as they are under age, any sexual activity between them and any man amounts to a crime.”
Thanks to Claire, Wangari and Immaculate say that they won’t hesitate to raise alarm whenever they detect abuse either against their peers or even themselves.
As for women in marriage, Ann says that there won’t be any other way of seeking recourse until they are willing to come out and for their plight to be addressed. “The government has procedures for actually determining rape. And even though a couple mat be married, if there is evidence that a husband has acted hostile to their spouse before, there may be sufficient evidence to prove a claim,” she says.
The Sexual Offences Act describes sexual violence as acts of any sexual nature that are done without consent - or perceived consent - on people classified as unable to give consent (like children).
In the ‘She Can’ report, researchers point into the irony that 85 per cent of girls and women expressed an opinion showing support for the freedoms of the girl child to live freely. The reality, they wrote, paints a different picture. The team also discovered that majority of women in Kenya lacked knowledge on the legal systems that can be explored when sexual offences and violence occur.
Claire and Ann both agree that more advocacy, which involves everyone in the country, may help with bridging the gaps.