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.
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.
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.