Author: Eunice Kilonzo

Kenya miniskirt attacks: We need everyday activism, not a 16-day campaign

Women at Monday's rally chant slogans in support of the woman who was attacked and stripped. (Pic: AFP)
Protesters at the #MyDressMyChoice rally chant slogans in support of a woman who was attacked and stripped. (Pic: AFP)

As we mark the annual 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence Campaign, Kenyans are reeling from yet another assault on a young woman, which occurred in Nairobi on Sunday. The 16-year-old school girl was attacked by four men, one of them a police officer, who tried to strip her naked.

Welcome to Kenya, a country where some men with questionable logic want to strip women who are dressed in short skirts in order to made them ‘decent’. Yes, stripping for decency.

This incident follows the earlier attacks on three women (two in Nairobi and one in Mombasa) who were assaulted and stripped of their clothes for being ‘indecently’ dressed. The incidents shocked Kenyans and videos of the attacks were shared online, prompting mass outrage which resulted in the #MyDressMyChoice protest on November 17.

These recent acts of violence against women are a reminder of the bitter reality we have to live with. As a woman, I have to endure street harassment, cat calls, being groped, awkward stares, winks and worse. As a woman, I have to explain why I choose to wear a ring despite not being married. Or I have to explain why I am not yet married. I have to justify my actions or inactions. I have to hear stories of women who have been beaten up, burnt and maimed by their lovers, neighbours and strangers who picked on opponents who could not stand up for themselves.

Like the women of Kilimani, I have bought pepper spray and a Taser, because I need to protect myself from men. That is a reality.

I was one of the many protesters who marched in downtown Nairobi to vent my anger against the stripping and attacks on women. Last Monday, we women literally put our feet down, raised our fists in the air, and demanded our rights of freedom and protection. But the irony of it all unfolded as we slithered our way into the town.

As we surged forward in the protest, we were met by men in the area where one of the women was stripped. They immediately began to taunt us.

“Are you wearing any panties?”

“Why didn’t you come here naked so that we know that you are serious?”

“If you keep talking, we will strip you to teach you a lesson!”

They had no fear in the world, not even of the cameras recording their taunts and vulgarities. The shoved and booed us and no one stopped them.

The women in their numbers drowned out their abuses with more chanting and feet-stomping. The level of lawlessness was absurd. It was clear: stripping was one of the many things they would do to a woman if they decided she was indecently dressed.

As I retreated home after the protest I accepted, sadly, that there are hooligans and perverts in suits and on social media. I was scared that day. I am still scared, because I realise that the attackers do not need reason to decide their actions. They behave like the law, dishing out judgment and punishment as they please. They will strip and pat their ‘brothers’ on the back for a job well done.

This blatant impunity affirmed in me that this is not about what women chose to wear. There were pertinent concerns of violation of women and it is worse if some police officers are involved. Our authorities are not swift enough in bringing to book those responsible. There were no arrests after the first two stripping attacks. For the third attack, 100 people were arrested but it’s unclear what happened to them.

Who decides what is decent or not? After these recent events, I have to check the hemline of my dress or skirt before leaving my house. I have to check how revealing my shirt is. I have to consciously weigh whether my outfit would pass the decency scale. Because for as long as these hooligans and perverts roam the streets of Nairobi and other towns, deciding on who to punish for what they are wearing, I am not safe. Provided that these groups of jungle judges are walking around in their flowing robes of decency with some invisible tape measure to determine how short a skirt is, no woman is safe.

While it’s commendable that we have dedicated 16 days to raising awareness of violence against women, it’s not enough. We ought to have a mind-set of everyday activism because this is an everyday occurrence. We need to make this everyone’s business. The men who abuse women in public or in their homes or from behind their keyboards are all liable. We need to realise, men as well, that we are all safe only when we are ALL safe. If one person is in pain, violated or abused, it will flow back to the rest of us.

Eunice Kilonzo is a journalist in Kenya. 

Kenya: Putting an end to transactional sex and letting girls be girls

It was a Facebook message from Liz Moran at the Women’s Institute of Secondary Education and Research (Wiser) that prompted me to research and write this article.

Part of it read: “Many girls engage in transactional sex in order to pay school fees or buy sanitary pads resulting in some of the highest HIV rates in the country (38%). The barriers for female education are so strong that in 30 years, only one woman from the community had attended University.”

This is happening in Muhuru Bay, a town in the Nyanza Province of Kenya. It is situated on the banks of Lake Victoria, close to the Tanzanian border.

The facts haunted me. Young girls engage in sex with fishermen in order to pay for school fees or sanitary towels. And it gets worse: women fishmongers in the fishing communities commonly form relationships with fishermen to secure the rights to purchase the fish they catch and then sell them in the market. The sex exchange typically occurs in a hurried manner, often without preparation or protection. As it compromises their ability to practise safer sex, men and women in these fishing communities are at increased risk of HIV.

Given the nomadic nature of the fishing community here and a lack of education about HIV and Aids, it is thus not surprising that out of at least every ten people, about four of them are HIV positive. Recent figures from the Kenya National HIV and Aids Estimates say that Kenya has the fourth highest HIV prevalence in the world, with about 1.6 million people infected with the virus. Of these, an estimated 191 840 are children.

In the larger Lake Victoria region, it is also common for women and girls to have sex with fishermen to obtain food, or to get fish to sell in order to pay for medicine or school fees. Therefore, it is necessary to break this cycle by offering a solution to at least one of the challenges.

Wiser seems to have found a good one.

“We run an entirely free high school for girls in Muhuru Bay, a fishing village in rural Kenya,” Moran told me. “Girls here rarely complete secondary school. They are forced into marriages, become pregnant, drop out of school to enable their brothers to continue, suffer physical and psychological abuse, and have a general lack of support and positive female role models.”

Students at Wiser. (Pic: Supplied)
Students at Wiser. (Pic: Supplied)

In 2006, Dr Sherryl Broverman, co-founder of Wiser, discovered a note that was slipped under her door while she was in Muhuru Bay doing research. “Should I stop having sex with the man who is paying my school fees? I am afraid of getting Aids,” it read. The note was from a 14-year-old girl.

In 2007, Wiser was formed to empower young girls in Muhuru Bay through education. Here girls would be offered a chance to study for free as well as get hands-on skills in agriculture, reproductive health and engineering. The girls would be removed from the environment that predisposed them to health risks, lack of education and instead get a chance to be girls.

The Wiser school in Muhuru Bay provides clothes, sanitary pads, books, healthy food, supportive teachers, mosquito nets, and medicine. About 150 girls have gone through the school, and girls who are pregnant are also welcomed. The school offers counselling and psychosocial support for its students while also helping them realise their talents and leadership skills. According to Wiser and Kenya’s Ministry of Health, this region has the highest HIV, malaria and infant mortality rates in the country.

“Our maiden class graduated this year in March and all the 28 girls passed their final Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education and 17 have qualified for university,” said Moran. “We know that those are girls who will lead their families and communities. They are innovative – some are making solar powered items from recycled materials.”

Members of Wiser's Engineering Club. The girls have created flashlights with locally available materials which they hope to franchise. (Pic: Supplied)
Members of Wiser’s Engineering Club. The girls have created flashlights with locally available materials which they hope to franchise. (Pic: Supplied)

Evidently, Wiser has long been living up to this year’s International Day of the Girl Child theme, ‘Empowering Adolescent Girls: Ending the Cycle of Violence’. By creating a fee-free secondary school, the organisation is changing the notion of what is possible for girls in Muhuru Bay, and also ending the vicious cycle of transactional sex and gender-based violence in school.

“Before coming to Wiser, the girls were in schools where their teachers touched them inappropriately and others were raped. Due to this, some dropped out. Here, we take a deliberate initiative to protect the girls while in school and we minimise their time out of school as well,” Moran said.

Girls around the world still face discrimination simply because they are girls. As we mark International Day of the Girl Child on October 11, the reality is that there are those who may still have to trade their bodies for a pen, a book or a sanitary pad. Fortunately for the girls in Muhuru Bay, they have one less challenge to overcome. Their education is being catered for and they are gradually being empowered to make their own informed decisions.

Hopefully when the UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka marks the day at Unicef, she will challenge each and every one of us to empower our adolescent sisters. We may have resources that we can share to educate them. We may mentor them, we may share our experiences with them, so they could learn from us and us from them.

There is a need for a generation of young girls who are actively involved in their well-being and who are proactively taking steps to end the cycle of violence and inequality. And then, they need to carry it forward to those who come after them.

It is my hope that young girls across Africa will stop exchanging sex for any basic commodities, not merely because of the risk of HIV and Aids or pregnancy, but because they do not have to.

Eunice Kilonzo is a journalist in Kenya.

Lessons from the Kenyan classroom

Children play at the sprawling Mathare slums, one of the largest and poorest in Africa, near Kenya's capital Nairobi. (Pic: Reuters)
Children play at the sprawling Mathare slums, one of the largest and poorest in Africa, near Kenya’s capital Nairobi. (Pic: Reuters)

On a recent Thursday at around midday, I saw a group of kids, not more than 15, who by their size appeared to be in nursery school.

The little boys and girls in pink checked shirts and grey pair of shorts were clustered in front of televisions on display.

They were pointing at a monkey swinging on the screens. They sighed in awe when they saw the close-up shots of ants. Around them were aisles after aisles full of new products for sale.

When I saw them, I thought: “Wow, these kids are out shopping at this hour … shouldn’t they be in class?”

However, unknown to me they were in class. Their teacher had brought her class on a trip to a SUPERMARKET.

Let that sink in.

A supermarket.

That one place that we dash into quickly to get a few things was their location for an educational trip.

Their teacher enthusiastically showed them why the many TVs in different sizes were on the shelves and why they had price tags on them. And that was not all; she was also describing to these young children why certain aisles were labelled the way they were.


Body lotion.


Again, a trip to a supermarket.

It stood out for me because school excursions during my primary school days were always out of town, probably to a beach or an agricultural institution or to the zoo or the airport – what I would now consider ‘educational’. A supermarket, in my view, was the least educational place for any learner.

But I was wrong.

From the looks of things and by the teacher’s thorough explanation of what happened here, you could tell this was an important trip.

The supermarket is in Mathare North. Mathare in Kenya is an area known for slums (second to Kibera), violence and more slums. In fact a quick search on Google shows you that the extent of poverty here is on another level.

Indeed it is true. I know, I live here.

The area has informal settlements popping up all over. Every few hundred metres you are bound to find a burst sewer that flows into water pipes, and food vendors. You will see clinics and health centres competing for space with bars and entertainment joints. You will see stalls lined up, trying to attract potential customers with their music, sales pitches or adverts.

There are car washes, colourful matatus (public taxis) and happy children playing on the road side. There are high-rise houses so close to each other that if one tenant has a cold, the neighbour next door would probably pick it up. That close. There are electricity wires in meshes swaying and scrapping the air in the Mathare skies.

Each day as I get into a matatu to town, I pass school children who, despite their torn socks and faded uniforms, carry paper bags full of books as they head to class. I see little boys and girls bracing the morning chill to get to school.

It was only when l I bumped into the class on this trip that I realised their lessons were both in and out of the classrooms.

I deduced that their teacher wanted to show them the available possibilities amidst the sea of poverty they knew. There was such a high level of want that these young minds would look forward to attending class the next day, pegged on the possibility of stepping into a supermarket that they either passed by every morning or whose branded paper bags they saw on the streets.

Seeing these inquisitive children asking why the soaps were put away from the bread and maize flour made me realise that while this visit to the supermarket was ordinary to me, it was probably a first for these little leaders.

You could see the admiration in their eyes as shoppers carried items passed them. It hit me that this trip was the opening of new chapters in these children’s lives. That beyond the mire of life in a slum town as they know it, there was so much more available. So much variety was presented to these kids but circumstances had hindered them from reaching out to them.

I saw this and I was challenged to take a fresher look at the things I have and assume exist for everyone else.

Later, the children filed past the teller and each was given a lollipop on their way out. Some of them began to undo the lollipop wrappers in glee. Then I noticed one who looked at his sweet for a while and then simply put it into his shirt pocket, stretched out his palm and joined his hand to complete a chain of little hands and glossy excited eyes.

Once their lesson for the day was over, they streamed out with their teacher.

Eunice Kilonzo is a print journalist and storyteller who tells tales on development, feminism and health. Connect with her on Twitter: @Eunicekkilonzo