By Mwende S. Muya
I was part of a conversation on sexual harassment that aired on Victoria’s Lounge in September 2016. The conversation focused on harassment both at the workplace and in public spaces. In 2014, women took to the street in anger to protest the rising cases of stripping and shaming. The infamous cases gave rise to “My Dress My Choice” campaign. The campaign gave women the opportunity to speak up against unfavourable judgement and punishment based on their dressing.
Yet, sexual harassment has progressed beyond one’s mode of dressing.
You wake up one morning excited and enthusiastic about the day. You put on a pretty dress that accentuates your curves and makes you feel like you are literally walking on cloud nine. Thereafter, you leave the house and head for the bus stage. Upon arriving, the first thing you hear is “siste leo umetokelezea”. “Kuja twende na hii, hii ndio manyanga ya wasupa”. (You look sexy today. Ride on this vehicle. It is the ladies favourite).
These are the voices of Matatu conductors and unruly parking boys. The parking boys around here demand for money from Matatu touts to fill their cars with passengers. They are literally pulling you in every direction with each of them trying to get you to board their Matatu (privately owned minibuses). You dread that moment hoping none of them will try to grope you. If you refuse to board, they begin catcalling. You enter the first Matatu you spot, even though it is probably not your first choice, in order to avoid the catcalling.
Once inside the Matatu, you close your eyes and breathe a sigh relief. Finally, you have some peace. You take out your book and begin to read. Just then, a man boards the Matatu and sits next to you. He takes interest in you and decides to make small talk. You are not interested, but you try to be polite and reply. He asks for your contact number, which you (politely) decline. The conversation ends there, since you are only interested in concentrating on your book. He blurts out that you are rude and selfish for turning him down and even proceeds to label you as unattractive. You are fed up and hope the vehicle would speed up. Everything that has happened up to this moment has been a nightmare.
However, the nightmare is not over yet. You get to town and rush to catch the next Matatu that heads to your workplace. You sit next to a man with a big envelope laying on his lap. He rubs (his hand) on your thigh. Instantly, you give him a very stern look but it does not end there. He does it again. This time round you cannot take it anymore. You move to a different seat very annoyed that he had the audacity to even touch you, let alone twice! Just when you think it is over, you glance at him pleasuring himself while staring at you. At this point, not only are you disgusted and embarrassed, but you also feel extremely violated. You are shocked to the point that you are speechless. You immediately ask the driver to stop the car and you get off.
Just then, you come to terms with the reality of exhibitionism. You have seen or heard stories about it happening in public places like churches, public parks and bus stop. However you never thought it could ever happen to you.
You finally get to your workplace. Your productivity is low and your mind is disturbed by the events that happened that morning. You left your house in high spirits, which are now completely ruined. All you can think about is rush home and hide. It feels that bad and you are so low.
Just like that, the day at work ends and it is finally time to go home. You wait patiently for a Matatu at the bus stage. As you would expect, Matatu touts approach you to convince you to board their vehicle. You decline but not every one of them takes it kindly. They rain insults on you as if you have no choice to decide which Matatu to board. You are extremely tired at this point but you see a Matatu that you prefer and approach. When you are just boarding the Matatu, an intoxicated idler at the bus stage grabs your bottom from behind. Everybody is staring. Some are laughing. No one comes to your rescue and no one says a thing. All eyes are fixated on you. You hold back the tears, the shame, and the anger and just wish you would become invisible at that moment.
Yet, such are the horrible experiences that many women face in their lives each or every other day. Women’s Empowerment Link (WEL), a Kenyan advocacy group, interviewed 400 women in December 2015. More than 50% said they had experienced gender based violence, whether physical, sexual, or psychological, when using public transport.
It is sad that some people often take these acts of sexual harassment as a joke. Yet, the cause effect bears a lot on the victim’s emotions and well-being. Worse still, people always blame the victim when it happens. It is the dress either was too short, lipstick too bright or even blame it on her attitude. People should know that women do not dress and walk down the street to entertain perverts and crooks.
It is my hope that we will gather the courage and unity to speak out more for ourselves and for others. I also urge men to join the #HeForShe movement and commit to stand up for a woman today.
The writer is a lawyer and a consultant on matters of politics, governance, youth, and women’s rights.
(This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on mwendemuya.com. See the original one here)