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I am a believer in pursuing one's passion and enabling others to realize their potential. Working with women and girls is my passion.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Real men standing up

Men must teach each other that real men do not violate or oppress women – and that a woman’s place is not just in the home or the field, but in schools and offices and boardrooms. -- Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

When conducting gender awareness trainings, one of the sessions I enjoy is listening to people from different cultures express what made them know they are boy or girl while growing up. While some are hilarious, many share how an adult made them realize what they were doing not appropriate for their gender. Habits like climbing trees were frowned upon for girls while habits like crying were quickly condemned for boys. Generally girls were encouraged to be submissive and obedient while boys were encouraged to fight and prove they are strong. Many men have memories of being made to fight off an aggressor to prove themselves. While childhood fights are encouraged by peers, for boys it was a mark of ‘manhood’ and the boy needed to prove that he is ‘a man’. A friend of mine shared how his dad locked him out of the house when he was running away from an older boy and made him fight.

Is it any wonder that some of these boys grow up believing that the only way to prove they are real ‘men’ is to exercise power over others?

Gender based violence is generally about exerting power over the victim. This can be done overtly or in a hidden manner. The issue of engaging men to understand about violence and the role they can and should play in stopping this has been discussed over many years. The issue of men engaging on issues of violence against women is sometimes frowned upon. I recall one gentleman involved in such projects share the kind of media coverage they received the first time they held a national conference. The media termed them as “men who are battered by women”. Recently during the “My Dress My Choice” campaign against stripping and violation of women in public some men joined in the demonstration. I remember seeing some comments on social media taunting these men and wondering what was wrong with them or what they were trying to prove. The involvement of men in promoting the rights of women is often questioned in the social arena. It is seen as not being man enough.

The definition of ‘man’ has come to mean power and any misuse of this power is seen to be a proof. Women and men both contribute to the process of socializing children and end up passing these beliefs over and over again. We are therefore the same society that can change the talk.

In younger days I used to hear a song that was popularly sang during weddings and we sang it until I grew and started questioning message.

These were the words:

“Now that you have been married **(name of bride). Morning tea is going to be your role from now onwards. If you do not do it, slap and kicks.

Now that you have been married ** the task of washing clothes for your husband falls on you. If you fail to do it, slaps and kicks”

On the wedding day, the woman was prepared for violence and man given permission to do so if the woman ‘failed’ in those roles. Respect and obedience were emphasized from the woman to the man and not the other way round. The only way to ensure this happened would be through violence.

In a world where about 50% are men and the rest women, it goes without saying that each of them has an important role in fighting gender violence. Despite any messages that are given about women and men, the boy will always watch what men are doing and aim to copy this. When men are seating in their social circles, they are going to influence each other in regard to how women are treated.

The message of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon should be heard far and wide. Men must teach each other that real men do not violate or oppress women – and that a woman’s place is not just in the home or the field, but in schools and offices and boardrooms.

I am glad, that real men are standing up to be counted.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Gifted differently: Sexuality and disability

“The only disability in life is a bad attitude” Scott Hamilton

Today I remember one great lady that I know. She was crying inconsolably, and many could barely understand what she was saying. This was unlike her usual bubbly smiling self. She was in pain. Eventually someone deciphered what she was crying about. We understood it then, she had been forced to have an abortion and she was bitter about this. She is deaf; she cannot hear or speak hence the difficulties in understanding what she was trying to communicate. She was not born with the condition but it developed after childhood illness hence she has never known speech. Her situation was complicated and I could tell where her family was coming from. She had two more children and did not have any gainful engagement. It was hard bringing up her children. The other element of her story is that it was never clear if she had been a willing participant or she had been raped. Apparently the perpetrator was known but nothing had ever been done.  Or was he a perpetrator or was she a willing participant? Did her family ever entertain the thought that she had sexual feelings and willingly had sex with this man? What about her, did she want another baby? She was not asked. It is evident that she loves her children to death! Touch her child and she could kill you, and I mean this literarily as some incidence had demonstrated how far she could go to protect her children. But this did not matter, nobody asked her, or advised her about some safety precautions. They made a decision to terminate her pregnancy.

What rights to persons living with disabilities have on sexuality? ALL.

One can never fully understand something until you face a circumstance that is similar. You get to realize that nobody can actually feel your pain much as they try. When I got into an incident on August 21st this year, it led realization of just what being incapacitated means. I fractured my ankle and from the time I first left hospital in Yei South Sudan to the house then to Nairobi vie Entebbe I somehow came to get a glimpse of what persons living with disabilities go through in accessing the public utilities. While I received a lot of support from friends and strangers during this journey, I could not help noticing how the world is not fully set to accommodate this. I noticed how insensitive to physical disabilities the facilities are. I noted how steep stair cases were. I recall while waiting to board the flight in Entebbe the flight staff requested the other passengers to wait as I and some women who had small babies boarded first. The crowd surged forward and we sat back to wait for them to board. I could not blame them, the flight had delayed and one gets the feeling of arriving faster if your boarder first.  I have spent more than 3 months not able to be my normal self with support from family and friends, yet the journey can only be travelled not imagined.
The experience is nothing compared to the experiences that those living with disabilities face. More so the invisible forms of violations that are informed by the social beliefs as to what they do or do not deserve.
 On this 9th Day of the 16 Days of Activism, I remember the persons living with disability on the International Day of the Disabled.  While women world over experience more forms of gender based violence, women living with disability experience unique forms of violence. My Masters Degree thesis focused on challenges that women with disabilities face in accessing sexual and reproductive health services. This included how they are treated when they go to hospitals when pregnant, or to access other related services. I still recall some of the stories shared by the women. The social stigma is incomprehensible.

What comes to mind when you see a disabled pregnant woman?

I asked several people that question and most answered that the first thought was that either the woman has been raped or she is very careless to allow pregnancy while disabled. At the most basic level they are denied the right to sexual expression, bringing up families etc. some shared facing physical, sexual and economic violence to various degrees. One woman was almost having her baby exchanged in hospital and it was only because of her assertive nature that it did not happen. She had albinism and gave birth to a normal colored baby while another woman in the same hospital gave birth to an albino child.  Some were left to give birth on the floor since they could not access the bed and nobody was willing to help.

The experiences shared were touching and inhuman.

On this Word Disability day, I remember women and men who have suffered various forms of gender based violence that has been made worse by their disability.  I remember many women and even men who have been disabled by gender based violence; the many who are denied their right to self expression.

It is about our attitude, not the other person’s ability or lack of.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

The silent 'shame'

“We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”  Elie Wiesel

Silence and fear have been used against survivors of gender based violence. Women keep quiet because they dare not speak out and embarrass the abuser. She may be blamed for what happened. They are likely to be blamed for what happened if not suffer more violence in the process. Men on the other hand though in minority will not speak out since it is unexpected, unmanly to experience gender based violence.  

Sometimes the silence is forced by the perpetrator while other times, one just feels they have to keep silence.

I recall an experience I had in my childhood that has remained edged in my mind. I still recall that beautiful Monday morning when I was excited to start a new phase in life. I was 7 years old, and voila, I was getting to the ‘big school’ as we referred to the primary school. I was wearing my pink dress that my auntie had bought me and it was yes a big day, rarely did I get to wear ‘Sunday on a week day. The school is few miles away so I comfortably started my walk to school. In those days it was not an issue for children to walk around the village freely. Since the beginners were not expected to be in school early, my older siblings had already gone to school.

A certain man who was from the neighborhood was walking along the road and at a young age it was always a pleasure to see an adult for company. He started some chit-chat and I responded. In my young mind he must have been ‘a friend’ after all I had seen him say greet my mother! When we reached a junction he suggested a path that when now I think of it had less people passing through. A few meters later he started looking side by side and somehow I became alert. He entered a certain farm and asked me to follow him.

I don’t know how but my 6th sense knew I was in trouble and I ran faster than I had ever run in my life. I don’t remember making a stop until I reached school, panting but not in tears. I was quite shocked. Even at that age I knew I had escaped something disastrous. To date, I don’t remember crying (which is unlike me). When the shock started wearing off, fear set in. I was very scared.

I had a lot of ‘what if”, what if I had not run fast enough, what if he had grabbed me…what if. 

For some reason I never told anybody. I knew it was something ‘embarrassing’ and more so I was not sure if anyone would believe. I feared that if I mentioned then the ‘adults’ would have thought that maybe I had actually been sexually violated and I could not imagine such kind of attention. (I would not be surprised if anyone reading this believes I am being economical with the truth! Such is the quagmire with gender based violence; you are dammed if you do, damned if you don’t). My fears were confirmed when about a week later; a girl from my neighborhood was defiled by a different person. There were a lot of hushed discussions about her, and it was traumatizing for her, having to face the public curiosity. I later learnt this man was a serial rapist and he defiled a child who was a few months old. This never became a public advocacy around these but hushed discussions as he sent to jail and came out; defiled other children and the cycle continued. 

The experience was traumatizing at that age and for some strange reasons silence seemed the best option, after all ‘nothing happened’. I never spoke about it till my adulthood and this is the first time I have put down a word about it. 


 In gender based violence silence is the language spoken. Many women and girls, and even men and boys have faced gender based violence but chosen not to speak about it. But what are the consequences of speaking out? The blame often put on the survivor makes it not worth the effort. Questions are often raised about the survivor character where the issue turns to be more about the survivor than the perpetrator. The one assurance that a victim of silence needs before speaking out is to know that, we the society will believe her; to know that we will not look at the so ‘straight CV’ of the perpetrator to judge if she is telling the truth or not. In addition, it is good to realize that children hide when violated due to threats. They are made to keep silence and only a high level of trust will make them speak out. There are other forms of abuse like exposure and attempted sexual abuse that affect children, but it is rarely acknowledged. A child knows/ feels when they have been violated, even when they cannot explain what happened. 

As we commemorate the 16 days of activism on violence against women, I know one thing must happen; breaking the silence. As a society we can play a role in addressing this. We can make it a point to listen without judging, and support where we can

The shame is on the perpetrator, not the victim of the actions. 

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Because they are human beings

Violence against women is perhaps the most shameful human rights violation, and it is perhaps the most pervasive. It knows no boundaries of geography, culture or wealth. As long as it continues, we cannot claim to be making real progress towards equality, development and peace.” Kofi Annan, Former UN Secretary-General.
Today is the international day on elimination of all forms of violence against women. It also marks the beginning of the 16 days of activism against Gender Based Violence in the world. The campaigns goes for 16 days and ends on 10th December which is the international Human Rights day. This campaign aims to put a focus on violence perpetrated against women and girls. There are other days in between that are marked as well including the International Women Human Rights Defenders Day,(29th Nov,) World AIDS day (Dec 1)  international Day of disabled persons (Dec 3) Montreal Massacre (Dec 6), when 14 female engineering
students were massacred. 

When discussing issues of violence against women, there is often a justification given usually from a relationship perspective. “Our mothers, sisters...” etc are used to put the point across. This is good as it reminds many that women are not an abstract idea but persons we relate with, in our daily lives. However this narrative often misses the most key point, that women are human beings! It is a basic as that. The discussion on “are women rights human rights” has gone on for long. Why even speak about women’s rights yet they are human? Essentially yes, there is no need to separate women rights from human rights. However in practice, women’s issues are often forgotten in the overall picture. The rights of women are often curtailed due to the social and cultural beliefs and practices which limit how much freedom women should have. 

In my view, the tragedy of gender based violence against women has not fully been appreciated. When we get some tragedy like a bombing or accident there is a lot of focus, yet so many women are violated and others die each day yet this is not treated as a global crisis.

Some figures from the United Nations website illustrate this: 
35% of women and girls globally experience some form of physical and or sexual violence in their lifetime with up to seven in ten women facing this abuse in some countries.
It is estimated that up to 30 million girls under the age of 15 remain at risk from FGM/C, and more than 130 million girls and women have undergone the procedure worldwide.
Worldwide, more than 700 million women alive today were married as children, 250 million of whom were married before the age of 15. Girls who marry before the age of 18 are less likely to complete their education and more likely to experience domestic violence and complications in childbirth.
The costs and consequence of violence against women last for generations.  (http://www.un.org/en/events/endviolenceday/ )

This is a global tragedy. The violence is perpetrated due to the power differences where most of the societies are patriarchal with male dominance. In majority of the cases, the perpetrators are men while women form over 80% of survivors of gender based violence. 

Recently in Kenya we experienced yet again the public stripping of women in the streets. The discussions that went around that as women and a good number of supportive men mobilized against this were disheartening. The campaign “My Dress My Choice” was started since the excuse for the violence was said to be that women were wearing ‘indecent’ clothes. The discussion went from the violation to justifications with the “nudity” tag put on this.  While even the constitution of Kenya recognizes the right to dress, some few men felt that this was within their mandate to regulate. That was the public debate. In none of the cases were the women walking around nude, but the perpetrators undressed them and left them nude while violating and stealing from them. However, the reality is that this was never about dressing but control, power and violence. Some of the survivors of these atrocities were interviewed. It emerged that in all cases it was ‘non-cooperation’ to other forms of violence that led to this. In one case the lady was asking for her rightful payment after selling some eggs and the man who had eaten the eggs started hurling verbal assaults. She was accosted as she tried to leave the venue. In another case the lady had refused to respond to verbal taunting and the perpetrator could not take this and it became a mob justice. 

Some of the debates left one speechless wondering if women are real human beings, citizens of this country. The bottom line is that women have a right to live free of violence because they are human beings. 

Violence free environment, is everyone's right.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Who caused the fire? I cry for Kenya

Today I attended Mass service at Christ the King cathedral in Yei, South Sudan. During the prayers, there was a special prayer for peace, and in South Sudan this is very close to the heart of the congregants. I listened to the congregant who was leading in the prayers as he mentioned countries in the Middle East and also in East and Horn of Africa which are fragile. Kenya was one of them. The truth is I expected him to mention Kenya and if he did not I would have thought ‘bad neighbor’ yet again I was still shocked…. I have been doing a course on peace building and fragile states in the last two weeks that kept making me wonder “are we officially conflict/post conflict country? Every time I read a reference to Kenya I want to scream no! 

A few years ago Kenya was referred to as the “oasis of peace” in East Africa. Little did we realize the pot had been boiling and tipped over in 2007 and our nakedness was exposed!
Sometimes I read posts by fellow Kenyans and feel we are really doomed. I cannot even try to talk about conflict in Africa, or in Kenya.  I recall a story in primary school books “who caused the fire”. It has been many years but I can really bits by pieces. Someone was annoyed by someone who was annoyed by someone…and eventually one of the annoyed someones’ hit the cat that ran and hit the candle that caused the fire. After the house got burned down they were able to admit that “we all caused the fire”.

We can start looking back and we will realize we all caused the fire. We continue causing the fire as we fuel our differences as hatred instead of appreciating diversity. We fuel the fire as we think democracy is less important than who is in power. We spread lies and hatred in words and deeds. We hide criminals in our midst and allow violence to continue as we protect “our own”. We stop thinking as one country and think as regions, tribes or individuals. 

Kenya is such a small country that I do not see any chance that we will ever divide into different (viable) states hence we are together forever hence we must learn to live together. Sometimes our ego is too huge to coexist. When we fight each other and kill one another who will come to our rescue? Have we not learnt from (more violent) countries the effects of violence? Doesn’t it sound ironical that the land where several peace talks for neighboring countries have happened is now a fragile suspicious place to be?

The government has a great role to play, but I can bet that the worse violence that can befall Kenya will be when we are fighting among ourselves.
I cry for Kenya, the fire is real. Do we care? Do we have what it takes to stop thinking any one person or persons or group or tribe or region are more equal than others and choose to building Kenya.
Do we have the will to stop the fire?