Students campaign to end sexual harassment in Kenyan varsities

University students follow proceedings during the Campus Me Too forum held at the University of Nairobi on November 19, 2019. PHOTO | FRANCIS NDERITU | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • Students from over 20 different institutions gathered at University of Nairobi to launch #CampusMeToo, a campaign to end sexual harassment in the country’s higher learning institutions.
  • A recent survey by ActionAid indicates that half of all female and a quarter of male Kenyan students have experienced a form of sexual harassment from a staff member.
  • The campaign will run throughout the 16 Days of Activism campaign until December 10, and is backed by the Ministry of Public Service, Youth and Gender.

'Nina power!' Shouts 21-year-old Caesarine Mulobi into the crowd. There’s a brief pause before the deafening response reverberates around the auditorium. Five hundred-plus students repeat the words back to her, only this time thunderingly loud.

The phrase (roughly) translates as ‘I have power’ in Swahili. Simple, yet powerful words that have become a semi-calling card for a new generation of young Africans — men and women — who are demanding urgent change.

Last week, students from over 20 different institutions gathered at University of Nairobi to launch #CampusMeToo, a campaign to end sexual harassment in the country’s higher learning institutions.

More than 10,000 students have now signed a petition that will be given to the Ministry of Education mid-December.

“This is Kenya’s biggest #MeToo moment,” argues Mulobi, who studied nutrition at the university and is part of #CampusMeToo, which is supported by ActionAid Kenya and UN Women.

She was harassed by “predatory” lecturers and says it’s time for change.

Sexual harassment is a big problem here, particularly in universities, and not just for young women.

A recent survey by ActionAid indicates that half of all female — and a quarter of male — Kenyan students have experienced a form of sexual harassment from a staff member.

RAPED BY LECTURER

For Diana, university was supposed to be fun — meet new people, new knowledge and a new world to explore.

One week in, she was raped by a lecturer at Kenyatta University — one of the country’s top institutions.

She was 17-years-old.

“I felt truly terrible about myself,” says the now 20-year-old, who asked to be identified by her second name only.

She speaks in a low voice, her gaze frequently falling to the floor. Around her neck hangs a gold ’S’ pendant — the familiar Superman shield.

After transferring from a different university out of town, Diana started her course two weeks later than everyone else.

“From the first day I walked into class he must have noticed I was a new student trying to catch up,” she explains.

“He had a reputation for not being very good. One time I told him the students would like more copies of the lecture notes. He told me to go to his office. When I got there, he closed the curtains, closed the door and … so many things happened.”

UNRELENTING PREDATOR

Many more encounters followed. Within weeks, Diana had swapped to a different course in a bid to escape. She was no longer directly in his grasp, but the lecturer persisted.

“I was really scared of him,” she says. “People warned me: ‘Don’t mess with this guy.’ They’d heard about him. So even after I changed course, he’d still call me into his office and I’d still go and meet him. I didn’t want to get on the wrong side of him. If I’d said no to his sexual encounters …. I didn’t want to jeopardise my academic work. He made me feel so terrible, like I was some cheap girl.”

On a national scale, academic institutions have increasingly been facing allegations of sexual harassment.

Even if you do report, senior staff members will often either shrug off the accusations or simply refer you for counselling.

A recent BBC ‘Sex For Grades’ documentary depicted widespread harassment at universities in Nigeria and Ghana — capturing specific instances of young women and men propositioned sexually by their tutors in order to improve — or keep — their grades.

“The problem is rampant,” agrees Mulobi, “but it’s so difficult to prove.”

Yet glimmers of change are afoot. The BBC documentary sparked an outpouring of commentary on social media and caused the Nigerian Senate to reintroduce legislation that would criminalise sexual advances by lecturers toward students.

SIMILAR CAMPAIGNS

Similar #CampusMeToo campaigns have occurred in Uganda, Tanzania, Ghana and Nigeria.

In Kenya, it isn’t just about making noise. The students want to pressure universities into prioritising the issue and exacting real change.

Among their demands are mandatory induction sessions on sexual harassment for newly enrolled students, yearly training sessions for university staff and the appointment of an investigation committee that students can approach when they have received unfair or missing marks.

The campaign will run throughout the 16 Days of Activism campaign until December 10, and is backed by the Ministry of Public Service, Youth and Gender.

“Sexual harassment exists in our institutions, and in most cases it goes unreported,” said Safina Kwekwe, the Principal Secretary for the State Department Gender Affairs.

“We need to work on the culture of fear. Recognising and addressing sexual harassment in our higher institutions is essential for providing a safe and respective learning environment.”

While the door is now open for conversation, says Dr Marygoretty Akinyi, a lecturer at the African Women’s Studies Centre at University of Nairobi, there is “much to be done. We have a sexual harassment policy (at the institution) but there is a lot of gaps — who do you report to? What happens after that? There is a lack of clarity.”

UN Women Kenya Country Director Anna Mutavati says: “We cannot stand aside while (our) higher institutions are being torn apart by predatory behaviour.”

“Violation of your rights through sexual abuse, harassment and assault is a violation of human rights — and it’s against the law of this country. You need to know there is a whole set of laws protecting you — you are not alone. This is about abuse of power,” she adds.

CULTURE OF FEAR

Diana never reported her lecturer. “I didn’t have any evidence,” she says, quietly.

Now a third-year student, she changed her number and simply tries to avoid him. Yet she’ll be back in his classroom next year, as departments often share lecturers across common course units.

Still, students are no longer willing to remain silent.

“One of my greatest fears is being misunderstood. For somebody to be like: ‘Why did you go along with it?’ In my heart, I was petrified,” she says.

“As a 20-year-old, I look back now and I know that I didn’t have a choice. I didn’t want to do those things,” explains Diana.

“I’m sharing my story so other women will feel free to do the same, and so they know there are rules to prohibit lecturers from doing this.”

Since the campaign began, more than 50 students have come forward to tell their stories.

“This is the right time for us to talk about this issue,” says Mulobi, who has been inspired by the action taken on a national level in West Africa.

“Mass power has the power to change,” she adds. “It’s not going to end here. This is just the beginning.”

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