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  • Writer's pictureIrungu Houghton

Channel national anger to transform the boda boda sector

Sexism, road rage and lawlessness exploded in time for International Women’s Day this year. The stripping and sexual assault of a female motorist by boda boda motorcycle operators unleashed national anger. How can we seize the moment to decisively transform underlying tensions before national amnesia takes over?

The women to drive movement is almost three centuries old. 252 years ago, Abigail Adams rebelled against the ban on women’s driving across thirteen states. Unlike Saudi Arabia where it took the bravery of women like Wajeha al-Huwaider and Loujain al-Hathoul to break the ban in 2018, Kenyan women led by Marjorie Blanche Gachigi have been driving themselves long before our independence.

Despite this history, there is one uncomfortable truth we must embrace. Public spaces, power, and gender relations that keep all free and safe must be constantly created and protected. It is eight years since Kenyan women and a few men chanted “#MyDressMyChoice” on Nairobi streets. That movement successfully resulted in some of the stiffest sentences against matatu operators for sexually assaulting their female passenger.

History repeated itself this week. Led by the Federation of International Women Lawyers Kenya, hundreds gathered again this week to march and demand tighter regulation of the boda boda industry and 230,000 signed Legal Sister’s online petition. President Kenyatta’s response was swift. All riders must be re-registered and licensed within 60 days, organised in an association, and publicly display their names and licence numbers.

Sixteen suspects in the Prof Wangari Maathai road sexual assault case have been arrested with one reportedly still at large. The public fury also fuelled a police crackdown on riders without licences, safety gear and breaking traffic rules. At least 425 riders have been arrested and 925 motorcycles have been impounded nationally.

The regulatory challenges of the industry are known to both policymakers and the public. This column described them at length and the work before the Government taskforce in March 2019. Since then, accelerated by new digital retail delivery apps, the sector has expanded by least 20,000 new riders according to Government statisticians as the Taskforce report gathers dust in State House. Leaders from boda boda associations, the women’s rights movement and policymakers must not let those recommendations or these week’s measures fade from the public consciousness.

We must resist the temptation to swarm like angry bees to repeatedly sting the 1.7 million strong sector with phrases like “menace” and “time-bomb”. Comply with traffic law and reform riders they must but blanket demonising and criminalising a sector this large is self-defeating. Anti-sexist and anti-violence training is also urgently needed. The March 4 attack was brazen. That several men who did not all know each other or meet to plan beforehand should behave in the coordinated way they did, reveals a deeper misogyny that needs cleansing. And it can’t wait for the next International Women’s Day.

We must also recognise that the survivor was assaulted twice, firstly by her attackers and all those who shared the video and helped it go viral. Article 31 of the constitution guarantees all human beings their right to personal privacy. Reaching into her car was the first violation of her space. Filming and publicly sharing the assault was the second violation. We owe the survivor our empathy and solidarity as she recovers from this traumatic experience. We also owe it to ourselves and the next generation to condemn what happened and empower ourselves and the state to interrupt this mindless violence on our streets regardless of our gender.

This year’s International Women’s Day theme is “Break the bias, gender equality for a sustainable future.” Without the freedom to move between private and public spaces regardless of our gender, there is no sustainable economy or society safe for all. Holding onto our biases of drivers versus motorcyclists, women car drivers and men boda boda riders leaves us with a cracked perspective that has no power to create a new social contract between us.

This opinion was also published by the Saturday Standard, 12 March 2022. The author thanks elder Muthoni Likimani for her help

Sign the Legal Sister petition here

Women derevas and freedom of movement

Kenya Boda Boda Industry and the search for regulation


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