By Mary Mwangi
Until today, women around the world experience harassment and even assault when moving in public spaces, including on public transport services. In Nairobi, Kenya, the Flone Initiative is combatting gender-based violence by supporting victims, and by training service providers to effectively prevent behaviour that compromises women’s safety and right to mobility.
In Kenya, minibuses called matatus constitute the bulk of the country’s public transport system. Most of these minibuses are painted with colourful graffiti art, play loud music, and take on board many passengers so that seating gets crowded. Like many women in Kenya, I often use public transport as my main mode of travel since matatus are the most affordable, though not always the most comfortable, commuter option.
Sexual assault on public transport
In November 2014, three video clips were circulating online and on WhatsApp of women passengers being stripped off their clothes at bus terminals and sexually violated inside a moving matatu, and of a group of men sexually assaulting a naked lady who, in an attempt to escape the assaulters, hides under a matatu. The incidents incited international outrage and were the catalyst for the #MyDressMyChoice campaign.
What’s troubling is that this problem is not new. A string of sexual harassment cases have been publicized in the past, and even though the Sexual Offences Act and the Anti-Stripping law have been in place since July 2006 and September 2014 respectively to protect women against various forms of gender-based violence, the culture of assault and denigration of women in public spaces remains unchanged. A few weeks back, a video went viral of a woman being raped by a man in a street in Nairobi while bystanders cheered. This incident left chills in most of us, igniting the fear of being attacked ourselves. These are just a few extreme cases of sexual violence in public spaces that have surfaced, but most incidents remain unreported due to the widely accepted notion that nothing will be done to bring the perpetrators to justice.
The risks of harassment and assault limit women’s opportunities
When using public transport, women and girls not only have to worry about reaching their destination, but also about the possibility of being verbally abused, inappropriately touched, groped, and even stripped of their clothing during their commute. Sexual harassment against women inhibits their participation in society and economic development, limits their education and career opportunities, and infringes their involvement in politics, religion, and other spheres of life.
In Kenya’s public transportation system, women’s safety, security and dignity is never guaranteed. Consequently, some women and girls are changing the way that they dress, as well as their travel routes and transport modes in order to minimize the risk of assault. These changes in behaviour and travel patterns fundamentally restrict women’s freedom of choice and movement, which is a violation of their human rights.
Making public spaces safer
Flone Initiative is a Kenya-based organisation working to end violence against women and girls in public spaces by encouraging behavioural change, promoting tolerance and acceptance, and strengthening capacities at the grassroots level.
Last year, Flone Initiative conducted a baseline study entitled “Violence against Women and Girls in Public Road Transport and Connected Spaces in Nairobi County, Kenya”, in order to understand the prevalence of sexual assault on public transport. The study showed that 73 per cent of the survey respondents had heard of or witnessed harassment of women and girls in public spaces. The most common forms of street harassment included the use of abusive language used by matatu crews (minibus drivers and conductors), and inappropriate physical contact that includes unwanted touching and comments to female passengers to coerce them to board the matatus.
According to the study, the main perpetrators of harassment in public transport were the operators at 82 per cent. The survey found that blocking the vehicle entrance or exit, comments with sexual connotations, and inappropriate gestures were other forms of sexual harassment inflicted on female commuters in the public transport systems. These forms of abuse may be attributed to poor professional skills and the low entry-level requirements for anyone who wants to work in the transport industry. The sector attracts many Kenyan youths who have minimal formal education and no formal training. Flone Initiative is addressing this by offering Usalama wa Uma© training to public transport operators in Kenya on prevention of sexual harassment, gender equality, stellar customer service and professional development skills. The training is offered by a male facilitator and uses a training manual that includes the following modules: Gender Values Clarification, Distinguishing Gender from Sex, Gender Norms, Violence “Clothes Lines”, Persons and Objects, and Don’t Stand By, Take Action.
Crowd mapping to combat under-reporting
According to the survey, on average, 36 per cent of commuters who experienced assault or harassment would take no action, while 30 per cent would report the case to the Public Service Vehicle SACCO officials, and 26 per cent would confront the perpetrator. Only 8 per cent say they would report the case to the police. This is a clear indication that the survivors of sexual harassment and assault either remain silent or rely on their own courage or resources to deal with the matter, and little is being done on the official side to curb the problem.
In order to encourage reporting of sexual harassment in public spaces, Flone Initiative developed the Report it! Stop it! crowd mapping tool, hosted by the Ushahidi platform. Since 2013, it has been mapping out sexual harassment and violence on public transport and related public spaces in Kenya. It provides the opportunity to both survivors and witnesses to describe the incidence, pin the location where it happened, and submit a report either under their own name or anonymously. The reports are classified into different categories, including physical harassment, emotional harassment, sexual harassment, verbal harassment, based on the perpetrators’ background i.e. known, unknown, group or individual. The platform provides various resources for law enforcement, medical and legal aid, and psychosocial services.
I, like many Kenyan women, aspire to safely move in the streets of Nairobi without fear of being attacked for merely being a woman. Gender-sensitive, efficient public transport services are a significant and practical way of challenging the patriarchal nature of the transport industry, promoting women’s right to mobility, and moving towards equality and justice.
For more details on the report visit: