Assuming nothing; questioning everything

Archive for April, 2015

Can it end with me?

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.

Shake that ass

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.

just because

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.

Something is wrong

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?

A Kenyan’s plea for Somali refugees

Somali Refugees

During my first year at the university I met a young Congolese woman. I would meet her in class, and in some cases sit next to her, but other than the occasional hallo, I never got to talk to her much. She spent a lot of her time alone and seemed to be in her on world.

On one occasion, the two of us were paired for an assignment. At that time I knew very little about the war in Congo. As we were discussing our assignment one day, I asked her whether the war had affected her family.

I was simply making small talk, and completely unprepared for what followed my question. She explained to me that she lost her parents to the war. She was left with her two sisters, and they had to live together just the three of them. I realised that in war, death and loss are inevitable.

Somali girls

At night, she explained, there was never electricity, and they spent their nights terrified, and in darkness. I realised that in war, all systems shut and nothing functions as it should.

In the midst of the dark and terrifying nights, the three young girls would often hear the loud sound of gun shots. She narrated how they would cover themselves with mattresses, rather than lie on them. This was their way of protecting themselves from bullets in case they flew into the house. I realised that in war, children had to be wise beyond their years and learn to protect themselves.

Other than the possibility of dying from bullets that could fly in, their other biggest fear was the possibility of sexual violence from military officers. She explained how they often broke into houses raping women and girls. I realised that in war, the people you expect to protect can be the greatest source of terror.

I don’t know how successful she and her sisters were in protecting themselves from rape and other forms of sexual violence, because she finished telling her story at that point. Perhaps she ended her story at that point because she didn’t want to relive the trauma of that period, or because it was too painful, or because it occurred to her that she was telling her story to someone she hardly knew. I realised that war came with trauma and pain that could only be described in silence.

I had many questions to ask her, for instance where they got food from, how they escaped, whether she escaped together with hersisters, whether she was in contact with them, but it was clear that she didn’t want to discuss it any further. After our assignment was over, she went back to her withdrawn self, with the casual greeting when we met on the corridors or in class. My questions about her experience during the war were never asked or answered. I realised that in war there were many unspoken words, unanswered questions and experiences that will never be told.

This week I have been forced to remember this experience after the Kenyan government declared its decision to close down the Daadab Refugee Camp. I imagine that many women in the Dadaab Refugee Camp have similar and even worse stories to tell. The story of the young Congolese woman tells us that refugees are not here on a picnic. They are here because they have no choice. Many walked hundreds of kilometres, for days on end without water and food, without knowing what lay ahead of them, to find refuge in this country.

I wonder what kind of government would decide to take back thousands of women and children to that hell of a nightmare, whether or not they were born in this country. I wonder which country decides to evict hundreds of thousands of women and children to a country considered the second most fragile country globally. Where health care, education, and all other basic and essential services have broken down, making them completely unavailable or inaccessible.

I wonder, which country they are supposed to go to; a country that killed their husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, children and neighbours. A country that almost killed them. A country where women and children watched their fathers and husbands die, as they were raped and exposed to all manner of sexual violence. I am sure many do not believe that they made it through that horror. I can imagine the nightmare of the possibility of going back to such a country. When we ask Somali refugees to go back and build their country, do we imagine that it is easy to build a country that has been torn asunder by avarice and lack of accountability?

As Kenyans, this is our time to demonstrate our humanity, let us stand up and speak out. Let us help the Government understand there are many young girls and boys that do not understand what a terrorist is; and to make them pay for the sins of terrorists is equal to terrorism in itself. Let us remind the Kenyan government that Somali is not synonymous to terrorist.

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First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
– Pastor Martin Niemoller-

Out of the ashes of apathy, Kenya must rise

Something is not right in Kenya. Something is amiss.

Something needs to be done, and that something needs to be done NOW!

Something needs to be done URGENTLY about the apathy that is currently characteristic of Kenyan society, because it is saying too much, and I don’t know what to make of it.

Apathy - Aristotle

Last week I wrote about a woman that  was publicly raped at 7am, in Nairobi, by a street boy/man, and people did nothing. If anything, they talked and made jokes about the incident. In the same article I talked about the different ways that Kenyans have responded to violence against women, often blaming them for “being in the wrong place at the wrong time” or for “dressing inappropriately”. I concluded my article by expressing concern and fear that if I went through a similar incident, people would look for reasons to blame me, and no one would protect me or stand by me.

The last two weeks have been the most tragic for Kenyans this year, following the killing of 148 students of Garissa University College in a terrorist attack.

The Garissa Massacre has attracted a lot of attention world wide. Thousands of people across the world are standing in solidarity with Kenyans. More recently, 15,000 people gathered in Belgium to honour the victims of the Garissa University attack. The French government has pledged to provide full scholarships for 109 students that survived the Garissa attack. The Italian government has pledged to give 25 scholarships to students of Garissa University to study in Italy. There have been vigils across major cities in the world, from Cape Town, Toronto, Brussels, London, and some parts of the US.

Kenyans have done a great job too, particularly Kenyans on Twitter (#KOT), who have generated all this attention worldwide. My worrying observation is that the Garissa massacre has attracted more support across the world than it has in Kenya. This observation has led me to ask, are people across the world more moved than we are and why?

When I attended the vigil at the Freedom Corner in Nairobi, I noticed that hundreds of Kenyans would pass by on their way home, and not care to join. Consequently, our own vigil in Nairobi had just about 500 people. I wondered where the 6 Million people that occupy this city were. What if only a quarter of them decided to attend the event? What if we had similar activities running concurrently in every county in Kenya? What difference would it have made?

The morning after the vigil, a former colleague of mine wrote me an email with a lot of concern, because she had seen my photo as one of the people that attended the vigil to honour the victims of the Garissa Massacre. She was concerned because she thought I had lost a relative. I explained to her that was not the case, and I was simply showing my solidarity with the families and friends of the victims of the massacre. To my surprise, she wrote back and commended me for my act of kindness. I wondered if we had sunk so low as Kenyans, to the extent that any act of humanity was something to be commended about.

This apathy is also demonstrated in protecting public resources. The recent report by the Ethics and Anti-corruption Commission (EACC) has named 175 public officials involved in graft. From that list only, Kenya has lost more than 15 billion Kshs. through fraud, embezzlement of funds, bribes and inflated tenders.

An interesting incident in the report is the case of one Mumias Sugar Company. In the report, it is mentioned that 69 Million Kshs was paid by the company, to transport sugar that never got to its destination. I found this rather interesting, so I decided to do some more research on it. I discovered that about 1500 trucks were loaded with sugar from the sugar warehouse in Kakamega. The sugar, worth 4.6 Billion Kshs was to be transported to the warehouse in Nairobi, but it never got to its destination. The sugar was diverted, and a few people made their kill at the expense of thousands of farmers.

apathy and ruling of evil men

That is the Kenya that we live in now. A handful of people have made it their business to loot public resources at the expense of millions of Kenyans, while 40 Million Kenyans watch it happen right in front of their eyes. Rather than take action, it is not uncommon to see a comment on social media asking Boniface Mwangi or activists to do something about an issue. Doesn’t this country belong to every Kenyan?

Going back to the case of Mumias Sugar, there are at least 2000 Kenyans that could have blown the whistle. From the 1500 Kenyans driving the trucks, the procurement and warehouse staff in both Nairobi and Kakamega. In many cases, it takes an audit to reveal such fraud, as hundreds of people watch it happen. Why are we watching the country being looted and saying nothing about it? At what point are we going to say enough is enough?

We need to ask some very fundamental questions as Kenyans. We need to ask ourselves: Have we lost our capacity as Kenyans to feel? To love? To care deeply? What kind of society have we become? Where public resources are looted right in front of our eyes. Where women and children are raped and we watch it happen. Where we blame women undergoing the trauma of sexual violence. Where massacres do not shake the core of our humanity.

Hate is not the opposite of apathy

Someone said apathy is an expression of deep – rooted anxiety. I don’t want to believe that this apathy indeed indicates that people do not care. I believe every Kenyan wants to see things work. I don’t believe that people are not moved by the corruption, sexual violence against women, and death that surrounds us. I believe that every person wants feel safe, and actually be safe. I believe every person wants to afford the basics; education, healthcare, food, shelter, transportation.

There is more than meets the eye on this issue. Whatever it is though, we must determine to get out of it. We must determine to take back our country, and protect it with all that we have.

Out of the ashes of apathy, Kenya must rise!

I fear that you will not protect me

A woman was raped right outside my office in broad day light, as the public watched. A colleague of mine happened to overhear the street vendors discussing and joking about the incident. The woman, who is alleged to be a sex worker was laying unconscious by the road side, and a street boy/man decided to have his way with her. The street vendors watched and went about their business because she was a sex worker. My guess is that a sex worker, who had passed out, they imagined that there was nothing to rescue her from; after all she had been having sex and drinking all night.

I wish to believe that this story is not true, but if it is not true, it is also worrying that such a story would be peddled in any normal society. I am worried about this whole story, but before I go into why, let me give a brief recap of sexual violence against women in Nairobi.

In November last year, a woman was violently stripped by matatu conductors. She was not the only one though as several similar incidents happened in different parts of the country in the same month. As if violent and public undressing wasn’t enough, many men and women argued that women needed to learn a lesson, as they were increasingly dressing inappropriately. The message was, it is okay to be sexually violent towards a woman who is “inappropriately dressed”. In fact such a woman is to blame for any violence that is meted out against her.

rape-of-womanhood-in-india-and-respect-women-save-women-save-india

Shortly after, the president, probably outraged by the increase in insecurity, and the blame that was getting apportioned to the government, stated that security was not only the responsibility of the government, but also of the public. Arguing that Kenyans had failed to take responsibility in the fight against insecurity, he asked where the mother of a two year old girl was, when the child was raped by her uncle. He asked whether in such an incident, the government was really to blame, and clearly apportioned blame to the mother. The message was, when children are sexually abused, it is because their mothers failed to exercise enough caution.

In March this year, the not so honourable member of parliament for Imenti Central, Gideon Mwiti, was alleged to have raped a woman in his office after forcing her to take a HIV test. The response from the public has been “what was a married woman, doing at alone at night with a man in his office?”. Again the message from the public was that there is a place for a woman, after a certain hour, and if she is not in that place, then she is to blame is she experiences any form of sexual violence.

Just around the same time, Joyce Lay, women’s representative for Taita Taveta reported that her colleague, the not so honourable Busenei, had harrased her sexually, by blocking her from entering her room, while they were on duty in Japan. While Joyce Lay has not been explicitly blamed for the incident, the picture that the media chose to use while reporting sends a different messaged.

joyce lay and Busenei

The picture seems to send a message that Joyce Lay is the kind of woman who had that kind of treatment coming.  Looking at the picture, I can imagine the kind of reaction that it will get from a public that is used to blaming women for sexual violence. I can imagine comments suggesting that she was harassed because of her dressing and style. The message that the picture sends is very clear, that a woman who dresses in a certain way has no one to blame but herself, if she faces sexual violence.

Just when I was about to conclude that Joyce Lay was not explicitly blamed, Othaya member of parliament, the not so honourable, Mary Wambui, blamed female politicians for sexual harrasment, arguing that they were to partly to blame for drinking with their male colleagues until the late hours of the night.

The message that there is a certain place for a woman after a certain hour was once again reiterated. Should the woman not be where she is supposed to be, then she is to blame for any sexual violence that she faces.

Going back to the story of the woman that was raped right outside my office, I am worried for myself. I am worried because if a rape happened outside my office, I realise that I am not that safe. The realisation that I am not safe, in a context that is hell bent on ensuring that the victim and the perpetrator share blame generates a lot of fear in me.

I imagine that if a similar incident happened to me, people might not come to my rescue particularly if they deem me to be “inappropriately dressed”. I imagine that if I happen to be leaving the office at 10 pm, they will question the kind of work that I do with a lot of cynicism. If I happen to have been in the office with my male colleagues, they will ask why I was alone at night with men. If my husband reports that he got worried when I failed to come home, they will feel sorry for him having to endure the agony of a wife who is absent to perform her wifely duties.

I don’t feel safe, because I live in a society that is out to teach women to stay in the box that society has made for them; a society that justifies violence against women who do not fit into that box. As a woman who doesn’t fit that box, I fear for my safety. I realise that if such a thing happened to me, there might be no one to protect me, no one to speak for me and no one to empathize with my pain. Instead, I will be forced to carry the pain, trauma, shame and blame by myself.

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