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  • Writer's pictureIrungu Houghton

Why we must still demonstrate

Last Saturday’s multi-county anti-femicide demonstrations refreshed protests that took place a decade ago. Why must, as one poster read, women and some men have to continue demonstrating for the rights of women and girls?


A decade ago, one thousand people tipped onto Nairobi’s streets with protest songs and t-shirts under the banner of My Dress My Choice. The 17 November 2014 street protests were a response to repeated attacks of women at matatu stops. Four attacks had taken place that month. Four years before, a Gallup World Poll had recorded 48.2 per cent of women feared sexual harassment in public. Organised by Kilimani mums, a social movement of largely young women, the movement’s 42,000 FaceBook followers led that mobilisation.


State Officers promised an end to the intimidation and violence and three men were promptly arrested. In 2017, they were sentenced to life for stripping, robbing and violently assaulting women commuters. Other men argued on television that women in mini-skirts and low-cut blouses deserved to be stripped in public. Others cited this as an example of moral decay and women were asking to be raped. Then, as now, the challenge was not in our laws, but in the attitudes and behaviour of men and some women towards independent women and their choices.


A significantly larger assembly of over 10,000 women and some men took to the streets in Nairobi, Turkana, Kisumu, Mombasa, Nyeri and elsewhere on Saturday 27 January. Organisers under the collective banner of the End Femicide Movement KE intentionally and successfully reached women from diverse backgrounds. Sex workers marched alongside parliamentarians, professionals with the unemployed and students, queer, lesbian and heterosexual women and women with disabilities. Together, they raged against the judicial, legislative, and executive system for not protecting the ten women tortured and murdered since the beginning of 2024.


Between 2016 and 2023, 546 women were murdered simply for being women according to Africa Data Hub. Incredibly, 75 per cent of them were killed by intimate partners, exes or relatives. Violence against women and girls starts early. Over 30 per cent experience sexual, psychological, or physical violence by the age of 15.


Sexist beliefs drenched in historical and modern patriarchal culture drive these statistics. Blaming the short-term rental and hospitality industry or women themselves is not the solution. Arguing that women’s financial ambition or desire for expensive lifestyles is yet another version of victim blaming. Ultimately, women’s economic disempowerment, toxic masculinity, and the strong sense of male entitlement over women’s bodies is where gender empowerment programmes need to turn now.


The Criminal Investigations (DCI) Director statement that only 94 deaths have been reported to the police in the past three years suggests that gender-based violence remains under-reported. That two thirds of gender-based homicides reported to the police are currently in court should encourage all survivors and victim’s families to report sexual crimes to the authorities.


Responses by legislators, the DCI, and the Chief Justice that the National Government Affirmative Action Fund is establishing GBV desks with specially trained officers in every police station in Kenya is welcome. Perhaps revisiting the defunct and underfunded Policare initiative would also be another strategy. The DCI’s announcement of specialised femicide hotlines and investigations teams is also a step in the right direction. So too, is the Judiciary’s plans to introduce trauma informed and sexual violence courts. These responses are signs that the protestors have been heard. The implementation of these promises must be closely monitored.


Over the next two weeks, women rights and feminist activists intend to call national and county parliamentarians to act ahead of Parliament reopening on 13 February, the day before Valentines Day. Their impatience with parliamentarians must also extend to all law enforcement, ministerial, civic, and business agencies. Let us all practise zero tolerance for violence in any form, against any gender.


Sexual and gender-based violence is not normal. Our silence, jokes, or sense of denial must not licence public acceptance. Femicidal behaviour is criminal, and it must stop.


This opinion was also published in the Saturday Standard,  3 February 2024.


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