I have been sexually harassed for 20 years of my life. I have grown up and lived most of my life in a society where touching and talking inappropriately to women, myself included, has become all too normal, and in all spheres of society.
My first experience with this reality dates back to 20 years ago. A certain green dress is etched in that memory. Not only because it was a beautiful dress, given to me as a gift, but more because the first day I wore that dress, at the age of 12 was my first experience with sexual harassment.
In my neighbourhood, there was a corner where boys that had finished high school sat in a gang. I had passed by the gang unnoticed for many years, until I wore the green dress, and for five minutes or so, I had a bunch of 10 or more boys whistle, laugh, shout and make me as uncomfortable as possible, as I passed by. I guess this was a sign that I was now grown up.
The frustrating bit about it was that for the next three years or so, that I lived in that neighbourhood, I dreaded finding the boys there, because that scene was repeated over and over again. It was a thoroughly uncomfortable and embarrassing scene that became all too normal. I learned to ignore it, but unfortunately, that was not the only space that I had to learn to ignore sexual harassment.
For the last 20 years, bus stops, construction sites and corners of the street where idle young men sit, have been spaces that have subjected me to numerous experiences of sexual harassment as men whistle, sometimes touch or utter words and jokes that are sexually offensive and embarrassing.
On occasion, I have stood up for myself and told off sexual harassers. But as a woman that was stripped last year at a matatu terminus will tell you, this is a very unsafe move, as the same crowd could turn violent, and decide to humiliate a woman through public undressing.
Sadly, streets and public transport are not the only unsafe and sexually intrusive spaces for girls and women, but the truth is even professional spaces are not that safe.
This week, I happened to be attending an event that was bringing together the most politically powerful men in this country. As I was preparing to attend the event, a colleague of mine prepared me mentally for the unwanted sexual advances and harassment that I would receive. True to her word, I found myself on occasion warding off a particular politician who considered his political and economic power as a license to sexually harass me and solicit for sex.
But this is not only confined to the politically and economically powerful. My biggest challenge as a professional required to attend meetings that require me to sleep away from home, is the amount of sexual harassment I experience. During the day, I imagine that I am sharing ideas with professional peers, only to be proven wrong in the evening when I begin to be touched or spoken to, in a way that makes it clear that I am an object of sexual gratification, and a potential substitute for people’s wives.
What is even more vexing is how there are no mechanisms to report these forms of inappropriate touch or forms of speech. Since I was 12, I have been harassed on the streets and in public transport, and now in professional spaces. Yet 20 years later, there is simply no mechanism to report. If anything, this form of sexual harassment is so normal, it would seem absurd to report. I have often asked myself why in meetings there is no mechanism to address sexual harassment, something that I have been subjected to conference after conference.
I realised how unsafe each space has become, when I sought a massage service a few weeks ago. I bought the service from a popular website offering deals and discounts. As is characteristic of every space for a woman, my massage experience turned out to be sexually inappropriate. I wasn’t too sure who to report to and what to report. I could not report such an incident to the police, as I would only end up being more humiliated. Besides, how do you report to Kenyan police that you think a place is unsafe for women based on how you have been touched or talked to?
I was also deterred from reporting to the police when I remembered an incident when a friend of mine accompanied me to a police station a few years ago, as I was going to report loss of identification documents. She was concerned about unwanted advances and disturbing text messages by someone that she had long ended a relationship with. The police laughed and joked about her report, and asked her to cooperate with the man. They advised her to stop being a ‘difficult’ woman and instead be more receptive to his advances.
Without a proper avenue to report, I wrote to the administrators of the website, where I bought the deal and gave feedback on my dissatisfaction, a complaint that was duly ignored. It was not until 25 days later, this week, when a 15 year old Norwegian girl got raped, that I got a follow up call on my feedback, expressing regret on what they termed as my ‘less than satisfactory experience’. The apology is too late now, it has led a young girl to go through an extremely traumatic experience, probably the most traumatic she will undergo in her life. Since that experience, I have been wondering whether I could have done more, but until now, I wonder what mechanisms are there to really listen and respond to complaints of sexual inappropriateness.
I read the thread on Kilimani Mums on the same issue and was surprised that the comments with the most likes were those that laid blame on the mother of the victim for taking her daughter for a massage from a man. But then again, this is the kind of society that we live in, one where the victim and the perpetrator share blame, with the victim taking the lion share of the blame in many cases. This is why rape is grossly under-reported, with only 1 in every 20 victims reporting rape. It is also the reason why people that have undergone sexual violence do not even speak about it. I could not discuss my experience, because on top of the trauma, I wanted to spare myself the shame and blame that would be heaped on me for my bad experience.
What we refuse to acknowledge, is that anyone can be a victim of sexual violence, no matter how empowered or cautious. The effect is also the same, no matter how empowered, sexual violence is humiliating, and embarrassing to talk about. It is even more difficult when mechanisms to report are either non-existent, unclear or unresponsive, coupled with a society that is hell bent on blaming victims of sexual violence.
My questions is, when will this end? Can it end with me? Can it end with other women in my generation? Will our daughters still be blogging, 20 years from now, about sexual harassment on the streets, in public transport, and in professional and recreational spaces? Will our daughters 20 years from now be stuck without options to report? Or frustrated with the inadequacy of options to report? Will our daughters, 20 years from now still be ashamed to report and discuss sexual violation, afraid that they will end up being blamed for the sins of the perpetrators? Are we willing to spare our daughters the shame and the pain that we have undergone almost all our lives? Can it end with me and my generation?