Assuming nothing; questioning everything

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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Comments on: "I fear that you will not protect me" (11)

  1. Good article Joan! The space for Society and gender dialogue need to be made visible and enlarged.

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  2. Women are their own worst enemies…the day that will change is the day men and society will start respecting women…enough said!..

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    • Thank you for reading, and for sharing your thoughts.

      I don’t agree with your statements because they are too generalised, and unsubstantiated.

      There are many women who are genuinely interested in making their lives, and those of women better. I know many women that support each other in small and big ways, but society chooses to focus and highlight and often exaggerate how women are their own worst enemies.

      That said, whether women respect each other or not, no victim of sexual violence should be made to share blame with the perpetrator, and violence should never be justified.

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  3. Sylvan .D. Ash said:

    You raise a very concerning matter. I hadn’t honestly given the issue much thought until I read your article. I have a sister who attends evening classes at Nairobi University and as such she comes back home at around 9pm – 10pm. The mere thought of someone justifying “any” [alleged or real] abuse towards my sister as “she deserves it for having been out so late” makes me want to punch someone. I shudder to think what I’d actually do if such a thing were to happen.
    That being said, while the president might not have approached it in the correct way, the truth of the matter is that society as a whole (including me, you, our friends, politicians and religious leaders) is at fault. We are becoming more and more concerned about ourselves and less concerned about our neighbour. And unless we address this problem, any attempt to address others will at most be mediocre.

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    • Thank you for your reading and for the comment.

      Statistics show that in Kenya, only one in 20 women will report rape. Other forms of sexual violence are even more under-reported. When I thought of the possibility of such a thing happening to me, it occurred to me that as much as I advocate for ending gender-based violence, it might not be that easy for me to report. The connection between society’s reaction to rape and other forms of sexual violence against women and under-reporting became very clear.

      I completely agree with your observation that our individualism has reached levels that are no longer sustainable. There is a price to pay for our actions and in actions, and we are paying the cost of our individualism in many ways. That said, there is hope, many people are realising that something is wrong with the way society is organised, and beginning to work towards a re-organisation.

      Please read this blog and realise how real sexual violence women is http://www.brainstorm.co.ke/2015/04/07/i-just-wanted-to-go-home/

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  4. wonderful message n ting naff respect 4 you miss…keep up n educate di nation

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  5. Thank you for reading and for the encouragement. I will do the most I can with the space that is available to me.

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  6. I came across your blog by chance. After reading this and ‘I just wanted to go home ‘…..it scares me. Somehow being raped/sexually abused is just another incident . What scares me the most is most peoples response..”Usijali wanakuanga tu hivo” or ” what’s the big deal?” Now I know that only one incident separates me from the lady who was assaulted in a Githurai matatu. Sad state of affairs.

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    • Thank you for reading and for your comment. Something is wrong when things that are not in the least sense normal, are taken as normal. Sadly, it is that way on just about every issue; from sexual violence of women, to massacres and looting of public resources. I discussed that in my blog this week. As Aristotle would say, tolerance and apathy are the last vices of a dying society. Only we can reverse how low we have sunk as a society.

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  7. […] a previous blog post I talked about how the lives and bodies of women are dictated and policed. From how to dress, where […]

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