Editors’s Note: In February, our Silence Speaks initiative traveled to Kenya to work with staff of programs as part of DREAMS Innovation Challenge, a program funded by a grant from the United States Department of State managed by JSI Research & Training Institute, Inc.. In recognition of April as Sexual Assault Awareness Month in the U.S., we're honored to feature on our blog the written versions of several powerful stories created in Kenya. (Stay tuned for the digital stories, which will be finalized soon!)
Women Should Not Have to Suffer in Silence
By Angeline Masinde, Bar Hostess Empowerment & Support Program (BHESP), Kenya
I was brought up in an era when girls were only supposed to listen, not talk. I am also the first born, so my mother expected me to take care of my seven siblings. Woe unto me if any of them made a mistake. I was punished on their behalf.
We all went to primary school in the Nairobi Eastlands. I walked to and from school every day with my girlfriends. Men often harassed us on the way. One day during a music lesson, our teacher told the class to go look for bamboo sticks to make kayambas (a musical instrument). I went in a group of four girls. We asked some men on the street where we could get the sticks, and they said, “Follow us, we can show you where to find bamboo.”
Our little minds didn’t see any danger ahead, as they took us to a deserted place where no one could see us. Then, two more men joined them, and together, they attacked and raped us. We were just 12 years old. The pain ate me inside. Rape was very common in our area. No one got punished, and only girls were blamed for it. The four of us never talked about it to anyone—not even amongst ourselves.
So many years have passed now but, still, every time I hear someone has been raped, I feel that pain again. And I always use my experience to advise young girls who are giving up in life, like some of the girls I work with. We offer them HIV prevention education and PrEP, but for the ones who face violence at the hands of partners, there may be fear to use the pills that keep the virus from being transmitted.
Thankfully, girls today do not have to suffer in silence. Working together, we can empower them and protect their rights.
Choosing to Stand Up
By Geraldine Kauma, Brick by Brick, Uganda
She and I were such close friends, ever since we joined the school. Every day after class, we stayed behind and chatted a little about how the day had gone. She even introduced me to her boyfriend and told me stories about how nice he was, and how intelligent.
After a while, I noticed she wasn’t as bubbly as always. She was avoiding people and staying in her room to sleep, whenever she had free time. Exams were fast approaching, and I decided to go and ask what was bothering her. After I prodded her, she broke down and told me her boyfriend had assaulted her repeatedly. She had been too afraid to say anything because he threatened her life.
When he found out that I knew, he also began threatening me. He said, “You and your friend and all the girls in your class are sluts. If you don’t keep quiet, I will tell everyone how damaged you are, and no one will want you.” He thought we would cower, but I chose to inform the authorities, and he was put in jail. Her family supported her in handling the ordeal.
After that, I knew I would stand up whenever I can, as a female who has been privileged with education and an opportunity to speak up. After university, I started working with youth on HIV prevention. I get to talk with adolescent boys and girls about the importance of health education and equal opportunity. They share many stories. One young girl talked about being overlooked because she is female. Her uncle did not want to pay her school fees. I talked to the counselors who had a session with him. He then began to support her.
Every day I strive to inspire young girls in Uganda to achieve their dreams, because I, too, was once a young girl.
When Silence is not Golden
By Chishimba Kasanga, Lubuto Library Partners, Zambia
I was 11 years old—too young to know much about sex, but old enough to have breasts. I was at home with my baby sister and my 23-year-old cousin. My parents were at work. I was alone in my room when my cousin walked in and started fondling my breasts. I was terrified! There he was, someone I trusted and looked up to, shamelessly enjoying himself. He said, “Do not tell anyone.”
When my parents came home that evening, I was afraid of causing conflict. How could I tell them he had touched me in ways I hated? I had no witness except a three-year-old who could barely construct sentences. So I kept quiet.
It happened again the next day, this time lasting longer than before. Still, I remained silent, fearing the consequences of speaking out. I wondered, “Will anyone believe me? What if he comes back again? When will this end?”
Even though I wanted to just forget about it, I couldn’t bear the thought that my cousin might do the same thing to my sisters. I finally found the courage to tell my parents the truth. Much to my relief, they believed me. When confronted, my cousin denied everything, saying, “Why would I touch her? I am old enough to have any lady I want, so why would I wasting my time with a child?” But a year later, he finally admitted it.
Today I am committed to helping fellow survivors and bringing public attention to the realities of sexual abuse. I’m now mentoring adolescent girls and young women, helping them find inner strength to challenge and overcome abuse and discrimination. It is so important for them to feel safe speaking out so justice can be served.
Survivor, Not Victim
By Redempta Mwende, African Centre for Women and Information and Communication Technology, Kenya
While I was drawing the curtains at the office, ready to call it a day, I heard a knock on the door and saw a young girl I knew peeking in. She was usually so full of life, but on this occasion, as she entered, the tears began flowing. I handed her some tissues. Then she told me her story.
She had gone out to a nightclub with friends to celebrate turning 18. When she felt tipsy, she wanted to leave, but her friends wanted to stay. They suggested she catch a lift with an older man they knew. She told me, “I took the risk, and it turned out to be the biggest mistake of my life.”
He invited her to spend the night at his place. Initially she hesitated, but because her parents were very strict, she was afraid to go home drunk. So she accepted. He insisted she should sleep in the bedroom, and he on the couch in the other room. In the middle of the night, suddenly he was next to her, undressing her. She said, “I asked him to stop, but he did not listen. I tried to fight him, but he was too strong. I tried to scream, but he punched me in the stomach.” He tied her hands to the headboard with his belt, and then raped her.
When she finished speaking, I hugged her, and we both wept together. I was the first person she told. She worried that people would not believe her, would blame her for what happened. I was happy to support her healing. It completely changed my attitude towards sexual violence. Today in my work, we talk to women not only about HIV prevention and STI treatment, but also about rape. These are all health issues.
Three months later, this young woman came to me and told me she had tested negative for HIV. She was lucky. She said, “I will not let one event in my life define my future. I am not a victim, I am a survivor.”