Nairobi’s ‘miniskirt’ march exposes sexual violence in Kenya

At the busy intersection of Accra Road and Tom Mboya Street in downtown Nairobi, a cacophony of voices clamour to be heard. Buses and vans vie for space on the roadside, and touts solicit passengers to ply their routes. Nearly everyone is on the move.

Shortly after 12pm on 17 November, one noise superseded all the rest – that of more than 200 women, plus a few men, marching, blowing whistles, chanting and yelling for their constitutional right to be protected from sexual violence, and to wear a miniskirt.

Ten days ago, according to Kenyan media reports, a woman wearing a red dress was stripped by a mob of men at this spot. They accused her of being inappropriately dressed. According to a driver and co-driver of a minibus who recall the assault, two men began it but others quickly joined in – “for fun”, the co-driver, Robert Ndungata, said. Driver Juguna Maina said he and others tried to stop them, but failed. “You can’t control the mob,” he said.

A passer-by captured the attack on his mobile phone, and the video was posted on YouTube. It was one of a number of such incidents to play out on social media in recent months, but none had captured the public’s attention to such an extent. Twitter was ablaze with hashtags, some advocating for women to cover up rather than be #scantilydressed, others arguing #MyDressMyChoice. It quickly escalated into a debate about women’s rights.

A link to the video was posted to a Facebook group, Kilimani Mums Nairobi, part of an online support network for mothers. On 12 November, a group of 10 Kilimani mums, connected only by social media, met for the first time. They decided it was their duty “to deliver a message to the touts who who stripped our sister that it is wrong and a woman has the right to dress the way she sees fit”, Kilimani mum Ruth Knaust wrote to members of the Facebook group. From this seed, the #MyDressMyChoice march was born.

Sexual violence is widespread in Kenya. A 2010 national survey (pdf) indicated that 32% of girls experienced sexual violence before becoming adults. Being stripped in public is nothing new in Kenya, says Christopher Kirwa, who turned out to support the #MyDressMyChoice movement. In the early 1990s, there was a lot of stripping, he says. The difference now is that it is more visible and there is more awareness of it, due largely to social media.

Kirwa, who owns an experimental marketing agency, was shocked when Robert Alai, an influential Kenyan blogger, tweeted in support of forcibly undressing women. “There’s more to it than lack of education. On social media, there are ladies supporting what happened. The educated masses that are supporting it tells me we have a bigger problem,” he said.

“Kenya is becoming more free, more liberal, more modernised, and there are people who are against that,” said Yvonne Kerre, the owner of a chain of clothing stores, Miss Kerre Fashions, that is thriving thanks to women becoming more expressive.
Some churches in Nairobi have spoken out against wearing short skirts, both at church and outside. Minibus touts in downtown Nairobi speak of an invisible line across the city, dividing where it’s acceptable to be seen in a short skirt, and where it’s not. The general consensus is that one inch above the knee is the limit. It’s clear that there is a strong, conservative core.

Two women, a bus conductor and an inspector, working on the Embassava bus stand where the stripping incident allegedly happened, believe that any skirt above the knee is morally reprehensible, and that the woman in red, who was stripped here, was the one in the wrong. “If she’s raped, it’s her fault,” says Naomi Mang’era, the inspector, of any women who wear “micro-mini skirts”. “Our country should be like Uganda – short skirts should be banned,” says a male bus tout. The two women agree.

“One has to locate this in the general discrimination against women, widespread stereotypes and chauvinistic tendencies of our society,” says Amnesty’s east Africa researcher, Japhet Biegon. There has been progress, he says; in 2006, Kenya enacted the Sexual Offences Act, which defined what sexual offences were. Before that it was a moral issue, the legal system skewed in favour of perpetrators.

The Milimani Mums are calling for police to operate mobile units so that women can report cases from the safety of their own homes. Lilian Manegene, one of the protest’s co-organisers, says there are laws in place to protect women, but they are not enforceable because the victims are afraid of going to a police station. Currently, victims must report cases in person at police stations.

Kenya’s truth, justice and reconciliation commission took this recommendation one step further, advocating a one-stop centre for victims of sexual violence to receive medical care and counselling, give evidence, and deal with police, under one roof in a place where they feel safe.

The only voice absent from the noisy proceedings on 17 November was that of the woman in red whose stripping sparked it all. “The lady in red is sitting somewhere,” shouted Manegene, addressing the crowd. “We are living in fear.”

“We hope by the end of this she’ll be bold enough to come out,” a bystander remarked.

– Source: The Guardian