In Summary
  • 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.
  • The UK-based charity, ActionAid, which commissioned the survey, found that girls in Kenya were the most likely to encounter inappropriate sexual behaviour.
  • According to the international survey involving Kenya, the UK, India and Brazil, three quarters of the respondents claimed to have been exposed to some form of sexual harassment in the same period.

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.

Beyond physical

But for Ms Muthoka, the assault has defied physical confines, leaping onto social media platforms where sharing of offensive material has become routine, as people get a virtual platform to say things that they would not ordinarily say in person.

“I have often had to delete obscene material from my cell phone and warn a classmate or contact from sending me such things, but sometimes they just keep sending them until I block them,” she says.

She reckons that a national dialogue regarding sexual harassment on our social media ought to be encouraged.

Ms Jane Godia, an editor at The African Woman and Child Feature Services, who provides services to girls who have been victims of such indecent acts, says the issue runs deeper, and lack of sex education in schools and general community awareness are major contributors to this moral decay.

Most sexual harassment cases the organisation handles, she notes, are perpetrated by older men on girls who are young and defenceless.

“The behaviour violates the girl’s dignity, and she ends up feeling humiliated, degraded and threatened,” Ms Godia notes. She adds: “The cases we have dealt with often involve someone who has more power, like an older relative, a neighbour, a stranger, or even teachers.”

The young girls, she adds, are often weak and lacking the ability to control the dynamics. “Most of them don’t even have the capacity to make informed decisions,” she says.

While there are policies that penalise sexual harassment in public spaces, many cases are still under-reported. According to Ms Godia, it is the prerogative of the person on the receiving end to decide whether the indecent acts are offensive.

Many times, however, the victims are not in a position to decide whether what they have suffered is sexual harassment. This results in situations where most cases go unreported, thus normalising the behaviour.

No outright evidence

“The problem has become so entrenched in society that even though acts like catcalling are proscribed by the Sexual Offences Act (2006), reporting and getting a prosecution is a big challenge. In most cases there’s no outright evidence of sexual harassment.”

She says because of this, many cases go unreported and perpetrators carry on unchallenged. She, however, adds that the organisation has been working with police officers to try and put in place mechanisms that make the process of reporting easier and safer for victims.

According to Ms Godia, the problem is with the society. “Are we as a society ready to deal with this problem, which in most cases, is usually the genesis of more serious sexual crimes like defilement and rape? That is the question we need to ask ourselves as a community.”

According to the international survey involving Kenya, the UK, India and Brazil, three quarters of the respondents claimed to have been exposed to some form of sexual harassment in the same period.

The study involving 2,560 young people aged 14 to 21 years, and aimed at uncovering when and where exposure to misogyny begins, and how widespread experiences of sexual harassment are during adolescence, found that girls in Kenya were the most likely to face harassment, with 74 per cent saying they had been exposed to it in the last six months.

Girls in Brazil, India and the UK followed at 64, 57 and 48 per cent, respectively.

UK-based charity, ActionAid, which commissioned the survey, found that girls in Kenya were the most likely to encounter inappropriate sexual behaviour.

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