Incidences of violence against women have increased at an alarming rate in Kenya, often taking on increasingly menacing forms. However, in recent months the violence has been taken to the streets in the form of public stripping. Who sets society’s moral standards and what does it say about a society when women are attacked indiscriminately and citizens remain silent? Esther Wanjiku finds out.
my dress my choice

The woman in the crude video looked terrified. She screamed in terror, as she tried desperately to protect her body with her arms. The crowd of men that had swarmed around her like bees to honey, pushed, shoved, groped, prodded and proceeded to strip her naked. In the background, shouts of “Toa” (take it off) rang in the air as by-standers stood, jeering, cheering, and watched. Nobody stepped up to the young lady’s aid. The video taker, obviously one of the spectators, wasted no time in uploading the clip promptly onto social media. It went instantly viral. The video has since been taken down from social media platforms.

The above occurrence, where the young nameless woman was assaulted in broad daylight by men who mauled at her like incarcerated animals for wearing a skirt that they considered was too short, was only the first of several incidences that sent shockwaves and outrage throughout Kenya.

Less than a week after the first incident, another woman in Mombasa became the victim of public stripping by a mob of men. The sickening video shows the woman being surrounded by dozens of men, who tore off her clothes, beat and kicked her – while dozens of people look on – before being paraded down a street, stark naked. Not one person even attempted to help the defenseless woman. Again, this incident was recorded and posted online. Still yet another occurrence, which was also caught on camera and uploaded on social media, showed a young woman who was assaulted inside a “matatu” (public transportation) in Githurai.

These explosive cases of violence, which happened in late 2014, that were inflicted on unguarded women of Nairobi and Mombasa, were startling events that shocked many Kenyans to the reality of the perceptions of women in the country by many of their male counterparts in modern day Kenya.

An African Affair?

The prevalence, of publicly stripping of women by men who considered them to be inappropriately dressed, is not a new issue in Kenya. Neither is it unique to Kenya.

In 2012, Malawian women took to the streets to demand an end to attacks on women for wearing what their male counterparts considered ‘inappropriate clothing’. Street vendors in the country’s main cities of Lilongwe and Blantyre, had accused women of defying cultural norms by wearing pants, leggings and miniskirts, instead of dresses and meted out their moral justice by beating then stripping the women.

In 2013, after the Ugandan government passed an Anti-Pornography Law, which alleged to “ban miniskirts,” more than 50 women were publicly stripped in Uganda for wearing a mini-skirt in public. The then Ethics and Integrity Minister, Simon Lokodo, was quoted as saying: “We know people who are indecently dressed: they do it provocatively and sometimes they are attacked,” implying that the ban put in place would protect women. As a result, so-called moralists took it upon themselves to put Ugandan women in their place by publicly humiliating them by stripping.

Another incident, in Egypt, in April 2015, six men sexually harassed a woman by surrounding and trapping her on Qasr Al-Nil Bridge. Luckily, members of the ‘I Saw Harassment’ initiative that is fighting violence and harassment against women, who were monitoring the day’s holiday activities, were able to rescue the girl. However, by the end of the day, the count was up to two-recorded physical sexual harassment and 28 verbal harassment cases.

Not Just An African Affair

Both local and international media is flooded daily with stories of disconcerting cases of violence against women: gang rapes, kidnappings, honour killings, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), sexual and verbal harassment and the forceful stripping of women make up part of the various criminal acts that violate a woman’s basic human rights.

right to wear demonstration

Kenyan women protest for the right to wear whichever clothes they want, at a demonstration in downtown Nairobi, Kenya Monday, Nov. 17, 2014.

Gender-based violence is a villainous crime; a crime that is so widespread, it cuts indiscriminately across age, economic status, religious and political affiliation, and educational achievement. According to the United Nations (UN) Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women adopted by the General Assembly on December 20, 1993, gender - based violence is any art of violence that results in physical, sexual, or psychological harm or suffering to women; including threats of such acts, coercion, or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life.

It is no secret that India is considered one of the most dangerous places for women with reports stating that a woman is raped every 18 hours in the capital city, New Delhi. On March 4, 2015, CNN reported a story in New Delhi, India, where the court banned the publication of an interview with a convicted rapist who blamed his victim and said she should just be silent and allow the rape. The victim who was attacked by five men on a public bus in 2012 later died from her injuries. The attack provoked outrage around the world.

Hot off the annual 2015 Spring Break spree in Florida U.S., a cellphone video showing a young woman being publicly assaulted by three men in a “gang-rape-type” attack was submitted to authorities and to the media. The incident happened just a few feet away from where hundreds of people were standing and watching and hearing what was going on but not one person made any effort to intervene or stop what was happening.

It is not hard to realise that violence against women continues to be a global pandemic, even with the many advances that have been made in championing the cause for gender equality. The moral decay in our society illuminates the deteriorating perception that men have towards women.

Appalling Numbers

Media reports aside, statistics paint a bleak and disturbing picture of the reality on the ground. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that one in three women globally have experienced either physical or sexual violence from a partner, or sexual violence by a non-partner at some point in their lives.

According to the International Justice Mission (IJM), “An estimated 1 in 5 women will be a victim of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime and in many developing communities, basic daily activities such as taking public transportation, using a community latrine, collecting water—can put girls and women at particular risk of sexual assault.”

As a commitment to raise awareness and trigger action to end the global scourge of violence against women and girls, the United Nations (UN) set aside November 25 as a day to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. In Kenya, the statistics are not any less alarming. The 2008-2009 Kenya Demographic and Health Survey shows that 46 percent of women aged between 15 to 49 years in Kenya have experienced physical or sexual violence, or both. Although these statistics are high, they are probably an indicator to the perception of women in Kenya.

On the UN website, Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon is quoted as saying: “Everyone has a responsibility to prevent and end violence against women and girls, starting by challenging the culture of discrimination that allows it to continue.”

The Cost of Being a Woman

Kenya, like many African societies, is said to be a conservative and patriarchal society, where men still hold to the fact that they have control over women and their sexuality. In some societies, it has become the norm to accept violence against women, especially pertaining to Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and domestic violence. For instance, some cultures believe that it is okay for a husband to beat his wife once in a while as this is a sign of love, while others believe that a man can beat a woman as a way of disciplining her. On the flip side, many women, especially those living in rural areas, spurred on by tradition and religious beliefs, still accept that they are subordinate to men. Such traditions coupled with stereotypes against women have played a role in perpetuating gender-based violence.

In 2005, the former Kenyan Minister for Energy, senator Kiraitu Murungi, stated the following in reference to what the then government’s fight against corruption was like; it was “like raping a woman who is already willing.” He then proceeded to laugh after making the statement. The country was stunned to say the least, and the senator issued an apology in regard to the misogynistic statement. Not only did this remark indicate that misogyny in Kenya extends from the common citizen to those in positions of power, it is also not at all unexpected that hooligans would stoop to the level of intruding a woman’s personal and private space by forcefully unclothing her in public.

Who Sets the Standards?

But who defines a woman’s dress code? Is there a real measure of how short a dress should be or is that left to each individual to define what works for them? Dr. Ocharo, a lecturer and Chairman of the Department of Sociology and Social Work at the University of Nairobi (UON), explains that in a society where there is anomie, people interpret things# differently and give room to vices like assaulting women. He says the forceful stripping of women in public by a section of men could be a form of aggression: “When a section of people in society feel that others are not adhering to the acceptable social norms, they may vent out verbally, physically or through social distance, such as posting a video on social media of a woman being stripped in public as a form of punishment for failing to adhere to the acceptable social norms.

doctor ocharo (sociologist)

Dr. Ocharo, a sociologist weighing in on the issue of how, and possibly why these events and attitudes exist.

However the question remains as to who exactly defines the acceptable social norms in any society, because although we have the universal definition of acceptable norms, people tend to forget that we also have the cluster definition. For instance a 19-year-old girl has her own definition of what is acceptable as [pertains to what she wears] which varies from that of a 40-year-old woman, despite the two being of the same gender.” Dr. Ocharo goes on to explain that today’s society has not clearly stated whose role it is to define what constitutes an appropriate dress for a woman.

As a result, this gap has provided room for anyone to take up the puritan role and Dr. Ocharo suggests that this is why a section of men can forcefully strip a woman in public and justify it as the right thing to do, basing their actions on claims that the woman is indecently dressed according to their own set of values. He adds saying that in a patriarchal society the role of safeguarding social norms was left to men and although

Kenya is still regarded as largely a patriarchal society, this differs from one geographical area to another. “[Why is it that] there are hardly [any] reports of women being forcefully stripped in certain areas in Nairobi such as Muthaiga, Runda, Lavington, yet such incidences take place in [the less affluent] areas of Kayole and Githurai [despite] all these areas being within Kenya which is regarded as a patriarchal society?” Dr. Ocharo asks before proceeding to explain the reasoning behind this discrepancy. How the people in the two distinct localities are socialised plays a big role in how they respond to issues in life. He further adds that although some localities in Kenya have changed, become modernised and are more accommodating of modern female dress, others have not.

Crowds often provide fertile ground for some people to exert violence and hide behind the incitement. However, Dr. Ocharo says that though people may hide behind a crowd, their common reaction towards an incidence such as a woman dressed in a mini-skirt is an indicator that they have repressed emotions, and a crowd offers an avenue to channel such emotions.

Laxity in the Law or Moral Decay?

Due to the negligence of bringing the perpetrators of violence against women to book, many culprits go unpunished, which then only spurs on the cycle of violence. Many victims of gender violence do not report the incidences. The most common reasons for not reporting such attacks to police are that victims often view the incident as a personal matter, they fear vengeance from their abuser, and do not believe that authorities will take action.

In 2013, the Kenyan media reported an incidence where a sixteen-year old girl - only known as Liz- was brutally gang-raped and her bloodied and battered body dumped in a pit latrine in Busia. Punishment for the felons? Community service to cut grass. This created a global outrage where more than a million people signed an online petition protesting the reprimand and demanding justice. On April 13, 2015, almost two years after the violent attack, and after the global pressure, the delinquents were sentenced to 15 years in prison, the minimum required by Kenyan law for sexual violence. But there have been many more cases where other such incidences of gross injustices have gone unreported or the committers have got off scot free.

Society is prone to dismiss sexual assault and battering by blaming the victim with comments such as; “She asked for it,” “she wore a short skirt.” In the 2014 stripping incident in Nairobi, bystanders were quoted as saying: “That dressing is inappropriate in the African setting. She deserved the strip”, “Wastripiwe kabisa” (Let them be stripped completely) or “They wanted our attention… Now they have it.”

Culture and one’s upbringing are variables that are said to play a role in producing male chauvinists who are often perpetrators of gender-based violence. Male chauvinism is the belief that men are superior to women. According to George Mwongera, a clinical psychologist at Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH) male chauvinists feel justified to use violence against women because they look down on women. He cautions that one’s environment may trigger them to be violent.

“A man who is brought up in a crime-prone environment and also one who comes from a family where he witnessed violence against women is likely to follow suit,” he explains, adding that men under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs are likely to be violent because alcohol and drugs may grossly impair one’s judgment.

Studies have shown that violent behaviour is often a response among people with particular methods of evaluating and coping with stress. Mwongera agrees with research that suggests bottled up emotions can make people more aggressive. He notes that some of the perpetrators of violence lack a coping mechanism for stress, and therefore exhibit their repressed emotions through violence.

“There ought to be a system where the perpetrator is punished but also can get help through intense counselling to address deep underlying issues that manifest as violence against women and eventually re-integrate them back into society.” Mwongera adds.

According to a survey that was commissioned exclusively for The Nairobian and conducted by American research firm, GeoPoll, the Nairobi stripping incidences were a result of Kenyan men hitting back at women because they felt that women were being favoured by the government.

The Power of Her Voice

In the 1960s, our Western sisters burned bras for equality; now Africa’s women are taking to the streets and to social media, to demand their right to walk freely without fear from men. In the aftermath of the 2012 stripping in Uganda, Ugandan women fired back on Twitter with the hashtag #SaveTheMiniskirt as well as with protests, rallies and creating support networks such as the Facebook group

“End Mini-Skirt Harassment,” to report men who stripped women in public. On November 17, 2014, nearly 1,000 people took to the streets of Nairobi in a peaceful protest championed by the campaign #MyDressMyChoice to denounce the series of brutal attacks on the women who were attacked for being ‘indecently’ clothed or for wearing mini-skirts.

The demonstration and a petition to parliament helped change the Sexual Offences Act of 2006 to explicitly define stripping as an illegal sexual offense. As a result of the outcry, a number of arrests were made and a special police squad, the Anti-Stripping Squad, (ASS) was formed to investigate and deal with men who strip women in public.

Ritah Mutheu, one of the organisers of the protest, says she was greatly moved and angered by the video of one of the victims who was stripped. Seeing a fellow woman being stripped and humiliated in public while people, a majority of whom were men, stood by cheering and laughing, made her feel like she had also been stripped.

She felt compelled to act on the violence and knew if there was going to be change it needed to start with her. “For how long were we going to stand by and watch as women were violated in public spaces? I felt [that] it [was] time we reclaimed our right of being in public spaces without feeling afraid of being violated. I felt if this grave injustice and heinous crime wasn’t addressed, then it would escalate. And so I made up my mind to do something rather than sit on the fence,” she explains.

Mutheu who has closely followed the events of the victims of the stripping incidences, recounts with great sorrow the pain of the victims. “One of the victim’s made her living from selling boiled eggs at a bus terminus in Kayole. The lady was stripped because she asked one of the touts to pay for the eggs he had taken on credit. Instead of paying, the tout and others ganged up on her calling her a prostitute, stripping her off her dignity and exposing her nudity in public. They even went to the extent of touching and sexually violating her in public. Sadly her life has changed completely from that day as she could not go back to her business of selling eggs and as a result she could not fend for her children. She has had to relocate from Kayole because of the humiliation she suffered. The incident has affected her emotionally, physically, psychologically and also economically.

The ASS has since identified the Githurai matatu in which the woman was molested in as well as, arresting the touts who assaulted the woman in Kayole. Mr. Edward Kamau who is accused of recording a video of a woman being stripped inside the matatu plying the Githurai 44 route was in March 2015, charged with robbery with violence.

What Must Be Done

Following the demonstration in Nairobi, Mutheu and seven other women who worked together on the protest, realized that they could actually make the government listen. “We realised that for the longest time, we have been silent about our issues as women, hoping someone else will speak for us. Women go through a lot of issues but due to the nature of our patriarchal society, they shy away from talking about them. Some of us decided to continue with the fight towards gender equality and this led to the formation of HER VOICE, a women led organization working to end Gender Based Violence” explains Mutheu.

According to Mutheu, the organisation aims to create an environment where men, women and children live in peaceful coexistence. She explains that, “domestic violence does not know race, class and gender. It affects both men and women in equal measure from all cultures and walks of life. It’s to this end that HER VOICE seeks to work with all stakeholders in a bid to help minimise gender-based violence cases in the country.”

For a long time the role of addressing violence against women has been left to women’s rights groups because in a majority of the cases men are the perpetrators of this crime. But men too have a role to play in ending gender-based violence and a crucial one for that matter, where men have to be on board as part of the equation.

One such initiative, that seeks to involve men, is the Sema Initiative, a project under the umbrella of Kenya Gender-Based Violence Partnership (KGBVP) to respond and break the cycle of gender-based violence in Kenya. The mission of KGBVP is to reduce incidences of gender-based violence through a comprehensive and inclusive strategy of prevention, intervention, treatment and enforcement by strengthening faith-based and community-based responses to the violence against women pandemic in Kenya.

In addition, male involvement groups have been formed to champion the rights of women. Of significance is the Million Fathers Campaign launched in July 2012, as part of the UN Secretary- General’s Africa UNITE Campaign to end violence against women and girls. The campaign has been engaging men in their various roles as fathers, brothers, husbands and friends to serve as advocates to end gender-based violence within their communities and society as a whole.

Violence against women is a public matter, hence it calls for all genders and stakeholders to work together in order to eliminate this reality in society. Even with the rising number of women parliamentarians and the presence of many high profile women in Kenya’s political parties, business forums and public offices, this inclusion will remain only cosmetic if effective laws and mindsets are not altered to safeguard ordinary women.

A change in the attitudes towards women, a change in gender laws and the speedy justice to bring perpetrators to book must go hand in hand. Society as a whole must take the necessary action to address the alarming phenomenon of violence against women and the cultural and the underlying currents that lies behind it. This calls for more action and less talk. In the words of Senator Joseph Biden: “For too long, we have ignored the right of women to be free from the fear of attacks based on their gender.”