By Kavinya Makau
“I can hear the roar of women’s silence.” – Thomas Sankara.
“ Not today Sankara. Not today. Not today!
We came in 1000s. We shouted! My dress! My choice! We sang our freedom songs. We marched. For women to be safe in Kenya.
It became apparent that we are protesting for our lives. For our right. Our right to live in a country that is ours too.
“Sijui nieke Mwili kwa handbag!? [I don’t know what to do with my body? Should I put my body in a handbag!?]” – woman.
We were threatened with violence. They said they would strip us and burn our bodies. We told them, “No! Shame on you! Shame on you!” and the bully became so small and helpless, it was embarrassing.
15 drunk violent men came to attack us and disrupt the demonstration. It was scary. We were afraid.
The men who were marching with us; our allies and brothers, became a single unit, went forward & drove them away. They then formed a barricade in front of us and behind us to protect us.
It was so powerful and yet so painful.
After the march, we advised each other to leave in groups. We worried our T-shirts could lead to an attack.
Today, Nairobi will tell you that women are not safe.
Don’t deny it.
But we are here. The dead have no protest. We are here.
We keep going.”
The above sentiments are drawn from Wambui Waithaka following her participation in the #mydressmychoice march hosted by Kilimani Mums on Monday 17th November 2014. The protest was held in response to acts of violence committed against women in Kenya beginning with the public stripping of a woman on 10th November2014 by matatu touts in downtown Nairobi. Her alleged ‘crime’?-indecent/provocative dressing reminiscent of Jezebel of old. Since then, similar incidents have taken place in Nairobi, Mombasa and Mlolongo. The most recent victim was recently discharged from the hospital following a harrowing attack a day after the #mydressmychoice protest.
Kenyans’ reactions to the outlined incidents have served to emphasize two diametrically opposed views in relation to women’s rights generally and violence against women in particular. A significant number are in support of a woman’s right to dignity and protection from all forms of violence. On the other hand, misogynistic views aired by self-appointed moral police in and outside of public office are indicative of a society that cannot reconcile itself with the fact that women are human beings capable of making independent choices regarding their bodies. And that those choices, the integrity and security of the woman making them ought to be respected and upheld.
Those that believe that the criminality witnessed this past week is about the decency or morality of the victims have missed the point. These acts are indicative of a patriarchal and intolerant state where violence is used to punish divergent views, whether the same are expressed in the public domain or in the private sphere. They are based on the fact that violence against women is so engrained in the psyche of some Kenyans that it is carried out with such a disturbing air of normality that hooligans have the audacity to strip women in public, as bystanders watch. So much so that onlookers do not raise the alarm or call the police, but have enough time to take videos of the incident, post the same on social media, with perpetrators boasting on Facebook because they believe the relevant state actors charged with doing something about this will do nothing. This is unacceptable.
As we prepare to commemorate 16 Days of Activism, the ongoing debate on violence against women in Kenya should underscore the importance of the following state obligations enshrined in Kenya’s Constitution, The Sexual Offences Act, The Penal Code, The Protocol to the Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa and others:
- Thorough investigations and the expeditious prosecution of cases of violence against women cases must be carried out so as to reaffirm women’s right to life, integrity and security of the person, both in public and private.
- Individuals aiding and abetting acts of criminality on social media and elsewhere should be arrested and arraigned in court forthwith.
- The state must ensure that the institutions that exist to address violence against women including the police and the courts are accessible, effective and safe spaces for victims to access justice.
That said, the state is a reflection of who we are as a society. The causes and consequences of violence against women in Kenya are evident. We must all challenge ourselves to actively engage in and call for progressive dialogue aimed at addressing cultural beliefs, practices and stereotypes that legitimize and exacerbate the persistence of violence against women.
Kavinya Makau is a women’s rights lawyer who works for Equality Now, as the Program Officer in charge of the SOAWR Campaign. This is an initiative of 44 organizations working in 24 African countries to ensure that all AU states ratify and fully implement The Protocol to the Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa. The Protocol is one of the world’s most progressive women’s human rights instruments and is the only treaty of its nature with specific provisions that address violence against women.