July 25, 2011

KENYA: Kung Fu Grannies Combat Rape in Kenya

HEALDSBURG, California / Global Press Institute / July 25, 2011

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As government, police and residents struggle to reduce rape incidences in Kenya, a group of grannies in a Nairobi slum is taking matters into their own hands. A local organization here trains elderly women to defend themselves against attackers.

By Rose Odengo - Reporter 

NAIROBI, KENYA – Shanty houses made from rusted corrugated iron sheets line a lone tarmac road in Korogocho, a slum in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital. Garbage is strewn along the dusty sidewalks, and a herd of goats trots by, oblivious to their surroundings. Amidst the shanty houses stands a robust church made of blue corrugated iron sheets with its name painted in white:

Outside the church, a sound of yelling and pummeling become audible, like out of a kung fu movie.

“No! No! No! No! No!” is shouted repeatedly.

The church door flings open, revealing a room of almost 30 elderly women in their 60s and 70s who are taking turns chopping, hacking and pummeling a punching bag. Some even use their walking canes to pulverize the imaginary assailant.

This is a self-defense class for elderly women in the heart of Korogocho, one of Nairobi’s largest slums, with an estimated 200,000 residents. The class is run by No Means No, a local organization that offers various programs to protect Kenyan women.

File photo courtesy :AFP/Tony Karumba

Sheila Wanjiku of No Means No says she was part of a larger team that brought the elderly women of the Korogocho slum together in 2007. They taught them a variety of martial arts techniques to defend themselves against rapists. Now the elderly women train diligently every Thursday and Saturday to protect themselves from attacks in the slum, an area rampant with crime.

Wanjiku, who was born and bred in Korogocho, says she witnessed many crimes around her growing up. She says she saw young men rape innocent elderly women, even killing some and leaving them in sewage trenches or garbage dumps.

Wanjiku says there are many theories on why this happens, including a belief by some men that raping elderly women cleanses them from other crimes.

“Some young guys say that when they steal or commit other crimes and rape a grandmother they would not be caught,” she says. “It’s like a form of cleansing ritual.”

Wanjiku says that most young men also believe that every young woman in Korogocho is HIV-positive, so they prefer to rape grandmothers. She says the young men approach the elderly women and request to visit them and buy them groceries as an act of kindness. But once inside the home, the men rape the elderly women and leave some for dead.

Authorities and residents in Kenya’s slums pass the blame when it comes to addressing rape incidences, which leave elderly women particularly vulnerable here. Nongovernmental organizations, NGOs, strive to reduce cases and provide legal services. Meanwhile, a group of grannies are taking matter into their own hands by gathering biweekly for self-defense trainings.

Scattered statistics of rape and defilement cases across the country make it difficult to determine whether there has been an increase or decrease in rape cases in recent years. Nairobi Women’s Hospital attended to approximately 2,500 cases of sexual and gender-based violence cases – with rape cases accounting for 21 percent – following post-election violence during the first three months of 2008, according to a 2010 report by the Agency for Cooperation and Research in Development, an international NGO. Meanwhile, the 2010 annual report from the Nairobi Gender Violence Recovery Center of the Nairobi Women’s Hospital listed 2,487 survivors of gender-based violence, with rape or defilement accounting for 85 percent.

Still, most women in the slum do not report cases of rape for fear of stigma, according to a 2010 Amnesty International report on women’s experiences in Nairobi’s slums. Some women interviewed in the report also said that the legal procedure took too long.

According to the Amnesty International report, there is an “ever-present threat of rape and other violence that women face” in Kenya’s slums. One reason it identified was the lack of adequate security services, such as policing and public street lighting.

Nelson Kambale, subchief of Korogocho government, says there have been few rapes reported this year.

“This year I have only had two cases of rape reported to my office,” he says.

Recently, there was a case of a molested child, but he says the parents requested the chief to contravene the law and mediate a financial settlement with the rapist to “make peace” instead.

Kambale says they make efforts to resolve crime in the area, but admits that many times they fail.

“We call local barazas [meetings] with the elders in the slum to discuss our new strategy to resolve issues of security,” he says. “Yet at the same time, the thieves are the elders’ sons, who they inform of the strategies and the initiative fails.”

Wanjiku says that the authorities are working to curb crime in Korogocho, blaming the residents instead for crimes such as rape.

“The community is not playing its role,” she says. “Parents settle cases out of court. They allow rapists to bribe their way out of punishment.”

James Wainaina, a resident of the area and a community volunteer, attributes the high delinquency in the area to extortion of local residents by police officers, instead of protecting them.

“Young men doing menial jobs earning 50 to 100 shillings [55 cents to $1.10 USD] a day are constantly accosted by police and accused of idling,” he says. “And the police would demand [a] 1,000 shillings [$11 USD] bribe.”

He says that the men turn to crime to make up this lost money.

Njahi, the officer in charge of the police post in Kariobangi, the area where Korogocho is located, denies allegations of police harassment or extortion in the slum. He says police rarely receive reports of crime.

“The community chooses to resolve its own problems,” says Njahi, who refused to give his last name. “They do not contact the police.”

Kambale says that very few cases of rape and defilement have been reported. He says that the number has decreased since the enactment of the 2006 Sexual Offenses Bill, which punishes those convicted of rape with 10 years to life in prison.

“If you know that when you rape you are facing a capital offense, you would think twice about committing the crime,” he says.

NGOs have also gotten involved to bolster government efforts.

Cecilia Chebon, legal officer with the Center for Rights Education and Awareness, an NGO set up by women lawyers to raise awareness of women’s needs and rights, says that government support in enforcing the Sexual Offences Act has been wanting. She says that the act mandated the creation of a register of convicted sexual offenders, but that this is yet to be done.

”State law office needs to be involved,” she says. “The most we can do is just push them.”

Chebon says that it also takes a long time to resolve the legal cases of rape and defilement that she takes on at the center, with cases taking anywhere from a few months to two years, depending on the stage of the client’s legal process.

Chebon says that some of the cases they deal with are also from towns outside of Nairobi a far as Naivasha, 90 kilometers from Nairobi and a one-hour drive away, and Nakuru, 185 kilometers from Nairobi and a 2.5- hour drive away.

As the government and NGOs trudge through the legal process, Wanjiku and her team of grannies is growing steadily. Starting with just 20 grannies in 2007, the team has expanded to 84 grannies.

Beatrice Wairimu, chairwoman of the team, pumps her clenched fists in the air and shouts with conviction, ”Ujasiri,” which means “courage.” The other women respond in unison, ”UJASIRI!”

Wairimu then beckons one of the women to hold the punching bag and whacks it with the bottom of her palm in two areas. She demonstrates on a fellow granny, indicating the areas to target on an assailant. She then beckons the other women to do the same systematically in a queue.

Whack! Whack! Whack! As the women whack the bag, they shout: ”No! No! No! No! No! Staki ujinga wako,” which means, “No to your stupidity!”

Wanjiku says that the No Means No progam has trained the elderly women to be bold, assertive and speak out.

“We teach them to yell, not scream,” she says. “When yelling, we tell them to name the act.”

This aims to draw attention to the assailant during an attack. Wanjiku and her team have also sensitized the neighborhood to run to the assistance of the elderly ladies when they raise an alarm in such a manner.

“This has helped us become confident and assertive,” says Jacinta Wanjiku, one of the grannies. “We even teach our grandchildren and neighbors.”

Another granny, Mary Wangui Njuguna, says the training is crucial.

”My friend was raped and found dead in a rubbish pit this last week,” she says. “So many of us are at risk. We need to defend ourselves, and this is how we learn how to do it.”

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