Violence against girls is all too common and it cuts across countries, cultures, class and ethnicity. Parents around the world want the best for their daughters, but it can be hard to get the right balance between protecting them and giving the freedom they need to grow.
I am seated by the living room window reading a book, more like staring into it. My mind wanders, occasionally glancing outside to catch a glimpse of my daughter riding her bike.
Those who know me can hazard a guess as to the author who makes me ‘tick’ with her affirmation of girls and women – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – but not even her poignant words draw me away from the many thoughts running through my mind as I watch my daughter's father motion to her not to ride so fast.
You see, my daughter is twelve years old and very independent. One of her favourite pastimes is cycling. I am happy because it pulls her away from the TV and other electronic gadgets that could take her God knows where.
I yearn for the time when as children growing up in Kenya, we could go outside to play and wander kilometres from home. Our parents never worried about our safe return – we always made our way back – exhausted, famished, sometimes dirty but always fulfilled from our day's adventures.
Like parents in countries across the world in 2017, most in Kenya cannot let a child - especially a girl - even 100 meters out of sight without fearing the worst! What has happened to us? What became of the adage that in Africa a child is raised by a village?
Am I paranoid? I don’t think so. My head is full of worried thoughts. Will she be able to use hand signals appropriately? Will the chaotic Nairobi drivers be courteous on the roads? Will she fall given the rugged terrain, littered and sometimes non-existent pedestrian paths?
What of the predators and pests? Will she remember not to talk to strangers? What of the “strange” stares? Why do we sexualize children? Why can’t a child be a child? Why would an apparently straight thinking adult look at a child and entertain sexual thoughts?
This reminds me of the infamous Kenyan court ruling by Justice Juma Chitembwe , who freed a 24-year-old man who had been convicted of defiling a minor because he thought that the 13-year-old victim seemed to have 'invited' sexual advances. Justice Chitembwe stated that although “she appeared to him as a young lady aged 14 years,” she had behaved “like a full grown up woman who was already engaging and enjoying sex with men”.
I am not surprised that Justice Chitembwe was awarded the Golden Bludgeon for the worst court judgement ruling for women’s rights in the world in 2016.The Kenyan law is quite clear that having sexual intercourse (read defilement) with anyone under 18 is against the law and is punishable by a very stiff sentence.
But are you surprised? Are we collectively surprised? Going by recent social media discussions – some rather heated on this particular ruling – it is clear that we still have a long way to go and are very far from consensus that a child is just that – a child.
Now, if the justice system will not protect my child because some in it believe that she can ‘entertain’ sexual advances and ‘consent’ to ‘whatever’ is suggested, should I then continue reading my book or should I be outside watching her like a hawk?
This fear notwithstanding, we as parents have allowed her to venture. At times she has grown wings and gone even further away and out of our sight and we have continued to pray for her safety. But this has not been without incident. Twice she has fallen and almost been hit by a car.
Men have beckoned her. This made my skin crawl and my insides burn with anger. As parents we soldier on and constantly seek to empower her to know when to run…when to say no…when to abandon her cycling mission, her dad chaperones her now and again. She is one lucky girl, privileged even. Let us take a moment, think about her peers who may not relate or identify with this narrative.
Where do I even begin with empowering her? I want her to live in freedom and safety not in fear and confusion and not surely in a sanitised bubble where everything is rosy. What I want for her is a future where she will not be violated or put down simply because she is a girl.
From my experience and observation, for pre-teens and teens it is a critical time, when we should be affirming girls to grow up into confident and empowered young women. Unfortunately, that is when we clamp down on them so hard – be it in school, at home, in public spaces and the larger society.
I am reminded of a question I received when my colleagues from Equality Now and I visited a school to have a conversation on sexual violence among other issues. It made me wonder, what has happened to adults and the community at large?
A young girl wrote on a piece of paper anonymously: “I was raped just before coming to school and I have not reported because I am afraid. My uncle always assaults me and I am afraid to say”.
These experiences have strengthened my resolve to jealously protect and uphold the role of schools as safe havens and spaces that allow our children to grow into their full unhampered potential.
I yearn for a country where the narrative around girls’ and women’s’ leadership and participation in public life is positive and uplifting.
As Chimamanda put it, a country where… “We do not teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We do not say to girls, you can have ambition but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise you would threaten the man.” A country that respects the rule of law and the Constitution and especially the provisions that speak to gender equality.
It saddens me that, 7 years after the adoption of Kenya’s constitution in 2010 , the struggle on implementation of provisions that speak to women’s equal representation in political and appointive roles.
What will it take though? How do we kill the persistent narrative that demeans girls and women? How can we increasingly affirm girls especially on their leadership potential? How can we breakdown stereotypes?
As my daughter comes back home, with her father in tow, I put my book aside just to hug her and whisper a silent thankful prayer.
About the author:
Flavia Mwangovya joined Equality Now in June 2015. She is passionate about women’s rights and has 10 years of experience in the gender and human rights field. Prior to joining Equality Now, Flavia was the Program Manager for the Network of African National Human Rights Institutions (NANHRI). At NANHRI she led capacity development initiatives for African National Human Rights Institutions as well as initiatives aimed at fostering collaboration among national human rights institutions, civil society organizations and relevant African Union actors towards enhanced human rights promotion and protection on the African Continent.
About Equality Now:
Equality Now is an international human rights organization that works to protect and promote the rights of women and girls around the world by combining grassroots activism with international, regional and national legal advocacy. Our international network of lawyers, activists, and supporters achieve legal and systemic change by holding governments responsible for enacting and enforcing laws and policies that end legal inequality, sex trafficking, sexual violence, and harmful practices.
Equality Now is dedicated to creating a more just world where women and girls have equal rights under the law and full enjoyment of those rights. For details of our current campaigns, please visit www.equalitynow.org and find us on Facebook at facebook.com/equalitynoworg and Twitter @equalitynow.
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Equality Now was founded in 1992 with the mission of using legal advocacy to protect and promote the human rights of women and girls. For more than 25 years, we have been using the law to create a just world for women and girls. By directing global public and media attention on individual cases [...]