Most women have experienced sexual harassment or even encountered sexual jokes from those around them.
A recent survey released by ActionAid revealed widespread harassment of young women with as many as three quarters (74 per cent) of Kenya’s young women reporting that they had come face to face with sexual harassment in the last six months.
According to a new study, young women aged between 14 and 21 are living in fear of unwanted sexual advances, both physical and now increasingly on the interweb.
Social media, where the uncouth behaviour seems to have spilt over uninhibited according to the report, has exacerbated the problem.
Seventeen-year-old Grace Achieng*, a high school student from Nairobi, told DN2 that she cannot count the times she has had uninvited comments thrown her way by strangers in public places.
“People working in public transport seem to have a proclivity to this behaviour. I can’t recall the many times I have heard “wewe ni size” (a phrase with sexual connotations commonly used by men to harass women, meaning, ‘you’re my size’) said to me at bodaboda stations or bus stops,” she says.
It gets worse, she adds: “I have been tapped inappropriately by men on crowded streets pretending they were just squeezing themselves through the crowd. This is a prevalent problem, it seems, because I’ve seen and heard friends say a tout touched them inappropriately while ushering them into a matatu.
It gets worse if you go to the open air market. Men there think they must touch or grab your hand for you to look at their wares. If your response to their action is hostile, then even more lewd things will be yelled at you. Most girls my age will understand what I’m talking about.”
Ms Barbara Muthoka, a university student recalls her shock when an elderly man squeezed her breast as she went about her business at Kariokor Market in Nairobi.
“I could not believe it, partly because this was an old man, the age of my grandfather. I remember I stood in front of him, angrily glared at him and to my dismay, he just scoffed it off and looked at me as if to say, ‘so, what will you do?’ There were other men, nearly his age, and I looked around to see if any of them would call him out, but they all just looked on as if what the old man had done was normal. I felt so vulnerable!”
Groping, catcalling, negative comments about a girl’s appearance, sharing explicit (e.g. naked) photos online, sexual jokes about girls, wolf whistling, sexting, upskirting (taking a photo up a girl’s skirt), and being forced to kiss someone, were some of the behaviours mentioned by participants in the survey.
Awareness creation is the answer
Young people, according to the research, predominantly believe education is the answer to this problem. Overall, 80 per cent support education as the way to tackle harassment of girls, backing educating boys in schools about how to treat girls and educating girls in school about how to report harassment.
They also feel that educating teachers about taking accusations seriously and educating parents is critical.
To try and empower girls about the subject, Ms Godia’s organisation started what it refers to as ‘the speak out boxes’ in schools, where if they are afraid to speak out, then girls have the option of writing and depositing their complaints in the boxes, which have three padlocks, whose keys are separately kept by the school administration, the school chief monitor and a local organisation working in this area of social work.
“All three parties have to be present to open each of the three padlocks to the boxes,” says Ms Godia. “This way, the girls are assured that their information is safe and they will not get reprisals from the school administration if, for instance, the person they’re reporting about is a teacher.”
Unfortunately, the box-programme, which was initiated three years ago, is currently only available to a handful of schools in Western Kenya, where cases of sexual assault are common.
According to Menon, “In the countries where ActionAid works, we support local women’s groups who work with entire communities to challenge these societal norms and educate women and girls about their rights.”
To make real progress, Ms Menon says, “we need a uniformed, properly resourced approach to tackle the unbalanced power relations that prioritise male privilege and perpetuate gender inequality. We want women and girls globally to be empowered to say ‘My Body Is Mine’.”
Forms of sexual harassment
3. Boobs grabbing
6. Wolf whistling
7. Explicit photos
8. Forced kissing
9. Sexual jokes about girls
10. Negative comments