• Irungu Houghton

Sex Abuse has no place in our society

First published Sunday Standard, December 17, 2017. Kindly reproduced here with permission from the Standard Group

International Human Rights Day last Sunday closed 16 days of public awareness activism against sexual violence. Heightened concerns about the safety of Kenyan women and girls made these activities more important. Recently, post-election violence, global #MeToo and #IBelieveHer campaigns and sexual assault cases against business leaders have dominated our lives and the media. Perhaps, it’s time again for another brother to brother conversation.

Despite the courage and impact of the #MyDressMyChoice campaign in 2014, our homes, workspaces and public spaces are not getting any safer. 70% of Kenyan women still face harassment on public transport and one in three women experience sexual harassment. In the aftermath of our longest elections season ever, men in police uniform allegedly sexually assaulted 65 women, 3 men and 3 children.

Teachers Service Commission Chief Executive Nancy Macharia just banned 41 teachers for misconduct, many of whom for having sex with their students. Over one in ten Kenyan children have been abused by the age of 18 and 35% of our youth recently expressed they do not feel safe from sexual assault. Sex for promotion, referrals, grades, financial benefits and favors is still with us guys.

For some of us, we feel entitled to demand sex from those less powerful than us. In so doing, we deliberately place ourselves in the cross-hairs of our Constitution and the Sexual Offences Act. We ignore that active agreement is necessary for consensual sex and that both parties must be able to make this choice freely without fear of any consequences.

For others, we are unconscious of the power we hold and exercise. This state of unconsciousness leaves us unclear what the boundaries are. What differentiates flirting and stalking, compliments and unwanted pressure, casual sex and intimidation among colleagues for instance? As the number of women in powerful positions grow, they may face these same leadership risks. They too, will have to look at the way they wield and share power across the sexes.

Regardless of whether we are conscious or unconscious, our sense of entitlement and misuse of leadership power and privilege gets us into trouble every time. By not upping our game, we also feed these horrific statistics and tragic survivor stories.

In the last few weeks, our Taita Taveta, Nakuru and Nyandarua County Governments have introduced “decent” dress codes for both men and women. The Nairobi County Assembly has also pressed for the closure of brothels in our capital city. These efforts seek to stop the over-sexualisation of our workplaces and neighborhoods. Alone, they are insufficient to deal with this form of white collar crime.

The risks to personal and institutional reputations has also led some leaders to call for more impersonal organisations. Should we discourage personal relationships, sharing our sex life (or lack of it) and ban any form of intimacy in the workplace, for instance?

We all miss an important point at our own risk. Sexual violence is any UNWANTED sexual act, comment or sexual advance that takes place irrespective of the relationship or setting. Banning mini-skirts or trying to control what else women wear is simply missing the point. So is, trying to assess whether she was in the right place at the right time with the right person. If this was true, how can we explain that globally, intimate partners are response for one in three cases of physical or sexual violence? Neither spouses nor our children are safe in all our homes and neighborhoods yet.

In the wake of many recent local and international cases, perhaps we need a man’s checklist to creating violence free homes, workplaces and public spaces. On my Man Up List would be ensuring all our spaces have assertive and unifying women leaders, a zero-tolerance culture and clear policies on sexual harassment, safe reporting and swift investigation mechanisms. The call for gender based affirmative action in our Cabinet and the National Assembly is as relevant for all our offices and civic associations.

The rest is just common-sense. Whenever our homes, work-spaces and public spaces are dominated by men, we open the door for abuse and place others at risk. We also risk our reputation when we have secret intimate relationships with women who report to us. Whether we as men, are conscious of it or not, our power over others is real. We must exercise our choices with care.

Thanks to Winnie and Irwin for the discussion that generated some of these ideas.

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