Sunday, 23 November 2014

‘Sasa supuu?’ For Kenyan women, street harassment has become a way of life.Drive Hot News

Women protest on Kenyatta Avenue in Nairobi on November 17, 2014 against women harassment, demanding the arrest of the men who stripped a lady naked. When you are a woman in Nairobi — and indeed many other urban centres in Kenya — you get used to harassment. Fast. PHOTO | BILLY MUTAI |
Women protest on Kenyatta Avenue in Nairobi on November 17, 2014 against women harassment, demanding the arrest of the men who stripped a lady naked. When you are a woman in Nairobi — and indeed many other urban centres in Kenya — you get used to harassment. Fast. PHOTO .

Mwende Ngao was walking the short distance to her Nairobi home after alighting from a matatu one evening after work. It was just a few minutes past 7pm, and she reasoned that she should be safe enough, given that there were motorists on the road and the occasional boda boda.
Besides, her home was just 10 minutes away and the walkway was well lit.
She was just a few minutes into her walk when she noticed a man walking behind her.
“He was walking slowly and I did not suspect anything fishy at first,” remembers the 26-year-old writer and filmmaker.
“I decided to walk slower and let him pass, but he started walking even slower. So I decided to speed up, and he sped up too, until he was walking right beside me.”
Getting nervous but struggling to keep her cool, Mwende resigned herself to the situation and allowed the man to walk beside her.
“He said hi to me and I decided to be polite enough and say hi back. I thought the matter would end there, but he started chatting me up,” she says.
She had noticed that she and her unwanted companion were the only pedestrians on the road. So, fearing for her safety should she ignore the man, she decided to indulge him.
“He was friendly, until he asked me for my mobile phone number and I refused. I considered giving him a fake contact but since he had his phone out, I knew he would dial the number immediately and I feared he would get angry if he realised I had tried to fool him.
So I picked what I thought was the lesser evil and just said no to him,” she explains.
But she was soon to find out that there was no “right” way of dealing with the problematic stranger on her case. He got so angry at her refusal that he pushed her to the ground, then towered over her and started raining insults on her.
“Look what you made me do!” he barked as he taunted her in between the insults. “You Nairobi women are so proud! Who do you think you are?”
He then sneered and walked away, leaving Mwende to pick herself up and run the few remaining metres to her gate.
Mwende’s story sounds familiar, probably because you know so many women to whom something similar has happened. This type of story no longer stands out or shocks, it is just part of the landscape.
When you are a woman in Nairobi — and indeed many other urban centres in Kenya — you get used to harassment. Fast.
You learn to expect it of men, to ignore and block it. You learn to resign yourself to the fact that it is there to stay and there is nothing you can do about it.
A recent video posted on YouTube re-ignited the topic of cat-calling and unsolicited attention towards women.
The video showed a woman in her 20s, dressed in a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, walking down the streets of New York.
In the 10 hours of footage that was captured on camera, this woman was cat-called 108 times in a single day.
One of the men followed her around for six minutes, while another kept at her for five minutes, asking for her number and making conversation.
She did not respond or react to these unsolicited and unwanted overtures in any way, and the video served to bring the street harassment conversation to Kenya, where it sparked heated discussions on social media.
Many women, like Mwende, were quick to share their experiences of unwanted attention and cat-calling on the streets of Nairobi, painting a clearer picture of what it means for a woman to walk the streets unaccompanied.
We label cat-calling street harassment because it fits this definition given by Stop Street Harassment, a non-profit organisation dedicated to documenting, addressing and ending gender-based street harassment worldwide:
“Street harassment is any action or comment between strangers in public places that is disrespectful, unwelcome, threatening and/or harassing, and is motivated by gender or sexual orientation or gender expression.
Because women’s opinions on the subject are widely known, we sought to find out what men think about the issue.
Ashford Kariuki, a 40-year-old living in Nairobi, says he has witnessed his share of street harassment.
“I have seen women get cat-called as they pass. I have heard men make remarks about women’s bodies, some quite rude and unsavoury; and I have also seen men grab a woman’s hand if cat-calling is not successful,” says Kariuki, adding that such behaviour “is a violation of a woman’s privacy” and should not happen at all.
“Women should not be made to feel unsafe on the streets,” he says.
So, does he tell his male friends not to do it? Yes, he does, but the reasons are less than kosher.
“Sometimes I tell men not to harass a woman because they might get embarrassed if she does not respond as they expect,” he explains.
He does not think that his statement turns men into victims in this equation. However, he agrees that once a woman is cat-called or harassed, any response she gives — or does not give — just exposes her to more harassment.
“If a woman ignores the perpetrator, she gets insulted. If she responds, she is opening herself to further unwanted advances from the man.
Simply put, she can’t win,” he says with a shrug.
Twenty six-year-old Altonel Asava, a Nairobi-based DJ, is of the opinion that what is termed as street harassment is sometimes just a man’s way of catching a woman’s attention. He does not think there is anything wrong with it.
“I have in the past tried getting a girl’s attention by just randomly telling her that she looks good and that she is beautiful,” he says.
His standard line? “Sasa supuu, habari ya leo?” which loosely translates to, ”Hey, beautiful, how are you today?”
He says that he has not received a bad reaction so far, and that most of the girls end up being his friends. He, however, says that if they walk away, he lets them go and does not bother them any more.
This form of appreciation of a girl’s looks is a view that many of the men we spoke to share, although they declined to lend their names or faces to their sentiments.
One, in particular, was of the opinion that some girls deserve whatever level of street harassment they get because of the way they dress.
Unfortunately, some men are not content with just verbally reprimanding a woman for what they see as indecent dressing.
They will go as far as assaulting her, as witnessed in recent incidents of men stripping women naked over what they deemed as “indecent dressing”.
In the first incident posted online two weeks ago, touts surrounded a woman as she walked along a Nairobi street, stripped her to a vest, and then ultimately tore her panties off, leaving her exposed even as she unsuccessfully tried to wrap her torn skirt around her nakedness.
A short video of the incident ends with the woman walking away from the scene with a scarf wrapped around her waist, presumably given to her by a well-wisher.
So serious is street harassment that the United Nations has recognised it as a form of gender-based violence and a gross violation of human rights.
In its 2013 report, the United Nation Commission of the Status of Women included several clauses concerning harassment of women in public places.
The commission expressed “deep concern about violence against women and girls in public spaces”, including “sexual harassment,
especially when it is being used to intimidate women and girls who are exercising any of their rights and fundamental freedoms.”
The commission also expanded the definition of gender-based violence to stress that violence against women meant any act of gender-based violence that resulted in, or was likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women and girls, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.
Violence against women and girls is characterised by the use and abuse of power and control in public and private spheres, and is intrinsically linked to gender stereotypes that underlie and perpetuate such violence, as well as other factors that can increase women’s and girls’ vulnerability to such violence.
Counselling psychologist and university lecturer Josephine Muthamia feels that the kind of men who would strip a woman regardless of how scantily dressed she is have psychological issues that need therapy.
“These men have low self-esteem and no respect for themselves, and so they take it out on unsuspecting victims. A scantily dressed woman provides easy prey for them to act out,” she says.
“The blame for harassment lies squarely with the man who does it. Everyone has a right to their space and no man should violate that space.”
However, Loise Noo, also a counselling psychologist, is not so quick to absolve women of responsibility.
“The way a woman dresses might sometimes cause her to be harassed. It is not a popular view among gender activists, but it is the truth,” she asserts. “A provocatively dressed woman makes herself vulnerable to abuse.”
Noo explains that most harassment is contextualised and happens because of the play of power in man-woman relationships.
She, however, acknowledges that there are instances of street harassment that are purely because of psychological imbalances in the man, or what she terms as “personality disorders”.
Dr Stephen Wahome, a counselling psychologist, rather than reduce street harassment into a simple, black-and-white problem with easy fixes, splits it into a complex, multi-dimensional issue that has its roots in culture and social bearing.
“The most easily identifiable factor is male chauvinism, where a man feels that women are lesser beings, and so he is entitled to their space and bodies,” says Dr Wahome.
“However, we cannot ignore the cultural aspect of the problem, which is that men have been conditioned to go after women since time immemorial. They are seen and accepted as the initiators of courtship.
The problem, therefore, is how they choose to do it, not that they are doing it.”
It was in response to the growing harassment of women in urban centres that UN Habitat launched the Safer Cities Programme.
It seeks to make public spaces safe for women, says Juma Assiago, the Nairobi coordinator.
The initiative was introduced in Nairobi in 2005, and works closely with city planners to ensure that they take into account women’s safety when mapping streets and designing walkways.
For example, Safer Cities rehabilitated Mama Ngina Street, changing it from a two-way into a one-way traffic street, widening the walkway and lighting it, thus making it safer for women.
“Mama Ngina is now one of the safest streets in Nairobi. We are hoping that the City Council, through its planning office, uses Mama Ngina as a model for reforming other streets,” says Assiago, adding that their next project is to make Eastleigh safer for women because they have realised that,
“Once women, especially school girls, alight at the bus stop, they cannot make their way home safely because the inner streets are dangerous”.
“Our plan is to reform the matatu transit system in the neighbourhood by contracting women on the ground to identify danger spots and transmit this information to us via a mobile phone application called Safety Pin.
We will then use this information to make recommendations to the city planners about what they need to do to make Eastleigh safer,” he says.
The project is expected to start in January next year, along with a safety audit of Nairobi County to identify the most dangerous spots for the metropolis’ harassed women.