Where Kenyan Women Stand: Assault on Hon. Rachel Shebesh

By Dr. Awino Okech

Like many Kenyans, I am deeply disturbed by the raw footage of Nairobi Governor Kidero’s vicious assault against Hon. Rachel Shebesh, Nairobi women’s representative, which occurred at his office on 6th of September 2013. I am troubled for two major reasons. First,  governor Kidero’s public display of uncontrolled fits of anger and subsequent “no recollection” argument tells us much more about his penchant for violence in conflict management than his spin-doctors weak public relations attempts. Second, I have spent the last decade working to create safe spaces for women. This is a commitment that is manifest through teaching in institutions of higher learning, working with communities of women and men across Africa and engaging policy makers in the region on the creation of effective gender equitable policies. I am committed to these safe spaces because like many Kenyans I have relatives who have died in the aftermath of violent attacks by their male spouses.

They did not die after one isolated fit of “provoked” rage but after years of physical and verbal abuse that begun with the proverbial slap. Silence was maintained in order to preserve a marriage, avoid public stigma and the “what did you do” question. I have friends who have been sexually solicited at work because they were seen as sexual objects irrespective of their qualifications and position in those companies. I have been part of institutions where sexual innuendos and commentary about women’s dress, look and inappropriate remarks about sex were casually uttered by senior male staff because he is an “African man” and this is what men do when they interact socially with women even within a professional environment. I have been violently mugged in the streets of Westlands with threats of rape casually bandied as the mugger left the money that was in my bag. Other women have not been so lucky since it did not stop at a threat. They were raped. These are indicators of where Kenyan women stand across class, ethnicity and age, which cumulatively frame Kenyans perceptions of the proverbial “Wanjikus” and the value we attach to her (our) contributions and place in society.

As I read Kenyans reactions to Governor Kidero’s assault against Hon. Shebesh, I was disturbed by the faceless reactions on twitter and facebook that affirmed how low we have sunk as a country. This assault has been argued to be a ploy by the government of the day to entrap the governor. It has been used to assert Luo masculinity specifically and Kenyan masculinity generally. Hon. Shebesh is framed as the anti-thesis of a “good Kenyan woman” because “she is too aggressive and needed to be tamed”. These arguments affirm the high levels of tolerance we have for brutish behavior. There is no code of conduct we hold our leaders to and therefore ourselves. The raw data generated from social media responses to the assault point to consistent efforts to control women through assertions about the “proper” way to exercise femininity, sexuality, physical movement and voice. They are palpable indicators of where Kenyan women stand despite laws and “opportunities”. It is a firm DO NOT CROSS THE LINE warning.

Governor Kidero show integrity, strength of character and courage – the same courage you displayed in publicly assaulting Hon. Shebesh – by halting the weak and embarrassing denials. Accept that you assaulted her, offer a public apology, handover the mantle to your deputy as this criminal matter is investigated and concluded. Deal with the consequences of your rash reaction.

Mr. Odinga, as the leader of the political party Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) that Governor Kidero is a card carrying member of, speak out unequivocally against this assault in the same manner you have spoken up about the allocation of finances to counties and a parliamentary system of government. This is not about a hierarchy of needs. Show us where Kenyan women stand for you and ODM.

Mr. President you have publicly declared your government’s commitment to ensuring economic, physical and social safety for Kenyan women. The Presidency must deliver a strong statement against this assault given that the Gender Directorate falls under your office. Making women a priority is not only about economic resources and quotas, it is about zero tolerance on all forms of violence. It is about holding all public office holders accountable including Nairobi Senator Sonko, to a minimum code of conduct that contains firm indicators that show us where Kenyan women stand for you and the Jubilee government.

Dr. Awino Okech is a researcher who lives in Nairobi.

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