Teaching girls to say no, and boys to respect it

A No Means No trainer demonstrates the self defence skills girls can use against attackers. PHOTO| ALEX MCBRIDE

Noooooo! The seemingly strong and endless repudiation reverberates throughout the hall on the fifth floor of Landmark Plaza in Kariobangi North, Nairobi, sending tremors through our bodies (and perhaps the building).

It leaves no doubt about what it means. No means no, which is what trainers from Ujamaa Africa’s project by the same name teaches girls (and boys) in informal settlements in Nairobi, as a way to prevent rape.

The programme was started in 2010 to equip girls and women with simple, memorable and practical defence skills (both verbal and physical) to help them fend off attackers. This is based on the assertion that it is better to prevent sexual and physical assault, than to deal with its aftermath.

No Means No trainers demonstrating a scenario where girls can use their voice to escape. PHOTO| ALEX MCBRIDE

Through the programme, girls and boys are taught to cultivate a culture of mutual respect and to speak up to prevent or intervene in cases of physical or sexual violence at home, school and everywhere else.

Throughout the six-week programme, girls are taught practical verbal and physical skills they can use to fend off attackers, through role playing common scenarios, such as walking home from school and being followed by catcallers or being lured into transactional sex.

Thirty-five-year-old Jacqueline Mwaniki who joined Ujamaa Africa as a trainer in 2011, says that the girls are first taught to recognise assault, be it verbal or physical, because some forms of assault are seen as normal.

The girls are also taught to believe that they are “worth defending” and to have confidence in their power to protect themselves, even from men who seem stronger or more powerful than them.


“We teach them simple verbal and physical skills. You know, things they can say or do to stop assault. We emphasise using their voice to stop assault, and to only use physical skills as a last resort.

“We also remind them that they don’t have to be nice when someone is assaulting them, because girls have been taught to act nice all the time, and this works against them in cases of assault,” explains Ms Mwaniki.

Ms Mwaniki says that simple things like being aware of one’s surroundings are important, and that use of voice usually works.

“Lie. Yell. Negotiate. Ask him to respect you. Pretend you can’t hear him. Let people know what is happening. Be loud. Maintain eye contact and don’t look down or avert your eyes. There are so many things you can do, and it starts with being aware of your surroundings. Can you tell who attacked you? Can you describe him in detail? Your answer shouldn’t be ‘I don’t know.’ You have to be that aware,” she continues.

If the initial strategies don’t work, the girls move along to physical skills.

Girls in their No Means No training session. PHOTO| ALEX MCBRIDE

“Girls tell us they don’t fight, but we teach them how to fight. Use your strengths against a man’s weakness,” Ms Mwaniki explains.

“These are basic life skills that every girl and woman should be empowered with.”

The No Means No team trains girls from Standard Five to Eight in the informal settlements of Kibera, Mukuru, Mathare, Huruma and Dandora, in Nairobi.

The trainers return after six months to assess the effectiveness of the programme, and the girls talk about whether they have applied any skills they learnt and whether the strategies were effective.


Reviewing the programme, researchers from the Stanford University in the US found that the training reduced rape cases by 51 per cent and pregnancy-related school dropouts by 46 per cent, among girls who went through the programme.

 Moreover, after the training, 50 per cent of the girls were able to fend of attackers, while 73 per cent of the boys who went through their own rape prevention programme intervened to stop assault.

Sexual assault survivors who go through the training often say that they wish they had had the skills back then, before they were attacked.

“When they participate in the role playing, they are triggered because we use the very assault scenarios they face at home and in school. We tell them that whatever happened was not their fault.

“We also started Sex Assault Survivors Anonymous to help those who were assaulted come to terms with the trauma, and give them support given that many of the girls still live with the people who violated them at home,” says Ms Mwaniki.

During the reviews on the programme’s effectiveness the girls give encouraging feedback: How they yelled no, poked an assailant’s eyes, grabbed his groin, pushed him with all their might or elbowed him, allowing them to flee to safety.

“Why let him rape me?” one girl poses after sharing her testimony on how she evaded assault by acting insane. “Some of the skills make you look stupid, but they helped me,” she adds.

Another one recalls how a man followed her one evening as she was going home from the shop. She tricked him by giving him her precious silver chain, and negotiated her way out of a quagmire.

“I told him that my mum would come out to check if I stayed to long, and asked him to take my chain as proof that I would return to him once I delivered the items my mum had sent me to buy.”

The girl did return with her mother in tow, and when the man and his accomplice saw the older woman, they fled.


Many of the girls have faced violence in and out of home. They had been touched inappropriately, catcalled, asked for dates, or called sluts when they said no. Even after the training, they continue to face some of these unwanted and unwarranted attacks, but this time round, they have an arsenal of weapons to defend themselves.

The girls are taught to use the perpetrator’s weaknesses to their advantage, and to make a fuss and throw tantrums, but not to scream because screaming might be misinterpreted. Because girls and women are known to scream when excited (for instance, if they won the lottery) or when scared (for instance, while running away from a rat or cockroach), instead of screaming, they are taught to yell an unmistakable no, to scare away the assailant and to draw the attention of people who can help them.

“They no longer allow themselves to be intimidated. They are not as weak as they thought. They can actually defend themselves,” says Ms Mwaniki laughing.

Girls in their No Means No training session. PHOTO| ALEX MCBRIDE

“Do or say anything to keep yourself safe. The goal is always to get away from the harmful situation. Fifty per cent of assault can be stopped using verbal skills, while in 20 per cent of the cases, physical skills have to come into play,” says Ms Mwaniki.

The girls are also taught to be confident because attackers usually target victims who look shy, because they are not likely to do anything to draw attention to the attacker or even to report the attack.

 Attackers also try to isolate or to intimidate victims, so the girls are taught to spot the patterns and stop the assailant before he follows through with his ill intentions.

“Replace panic with strategy. What can you do to get away from the situation?” shares Ms Mwaniki.

At the end of each class, the teachers do a “shout out” to ensure everyone leaves on a high.

We experience this at St Joel’s Primary School, in Nairobi, where 30 girls fill the dusty classroom with their powerful voices: “Get back, I’m not intimidated!”

Repeating the teacher’s mantra in unison, they chant: “I said no, don’t touch me!”

I got my body. I’m beautiful. Very, very beautiful. I’m dangerous! I’m dangerous. Don’t get me started. Back off! Back off! No! No! No! Nooooooooooooooo!

Just across the courtyard, the boys are doing the same. Dressed in white shirts and teal-coloured shorts, they shout and punch the air.

However, theres’ is a slightly different message. “Life will test me,” they yell. “I have to be ready to do the right thing.”




14% of women age 15-49 have ever experienced sexual violence and 8% have experienced sexual violence in the past 12 months.

The youngest women (age 15-19) are less likely than older women age 30-49 to report sexual violence ever and in the past 12 months (7% and 3%, compared with 17-18%, respectively).

Experience of sexual violence ever and in the past 12 months is highest among women in Western, Nyanza and Nairobi (20-22% and 12-14%)

50% of women and men had first experienced sexual violence by age 22.

3% have experienced sexual violence only, and 12% have experienced both physical and sexual violence.

The percentage of women who have experienced physical or sexual violence increases steadily with age, from 35% among those age 15-19 to 54% among those age 40-49.

32% of girls and 18% of boys experience sexual violence

11% of girls and 45 of boys aged 13-17 years experienced sexual violence 12 months prior to the survey

For girls, the most common perpetrator of sexual violence was a boyfriend /romantic partner (25%), followed by neighboyr (20%) and then friends/classmates (20%).



Why boys must be included in fight against sexual assault

Boys at St Joel's Primary School being taken through the Journey to Manhood training.


Isaac, a 15-year-old boy, watched as a group of men grabbed a young girl one evening in Kibera, Nairobi. He knew she was in trouble, but he was no match for the older men. However, he had a secret weapon to draw upon. They had been trained how to intervene in such scenarios at school. He called another man, who was passing by, to help him confront the predators.

“The men started arguing,” recalls Isaac. “The predators said the girl was their ‘catch’ and they had to rape her.”

After 20 minutes of squabbling with the intervener, they decided to let the girl go.

Isaac used skills from the No Means No programme implemented by Ujamaa Africa, a non-governmental organisation, to stop the girl from being assaulted.

In years past, the programme was reserved for girls, but research showed that girls were being assaulted by their boyfriends.

It therefore became imperative to train boys – the perpetrators of physical and sexual violence – to be part of the solution by recognising and helping stop violence against women and girls.

“Boys were bullying girls. They believed they could have their own way. These days they are protecting the girls,” says 30-year-old Anthony Njangiru, one of the trainers.

Before the training, boys were not likely to intervene when they saw a woman or girl being assaulted and most believed that a woman or girl who wore a short skirt was “asking” for rape. After training, research showed that these attitudes had changed, with 70 per cent of boys saying they would intervene if they saw a woman being assaulted.

Boys are taken through Sources of Strength (for 10- to 13-year-olds) and Moment of Truth (for 14- to 18-year-olds). The six-week programme is a mix of sex and puberty education, lessons on consent, rape myths and practical skills to help the boys intervene if they witness assault. The training also promotes better gender relations by changing the boys’ perceptions and attitudes towards girls and women. So far, 250,000 girls and boys in over 300 schools have been trained.

“Boys and men are part of the problem; we can be part of the solution.

“Boys have to stop thinking that when a girl says no to sex, she actually means ‘yes’ or that it is justifiable to rape a girl if she wears a short skirt,” says Mr Njangiru.

And if research from the Stanford University in the US is anything to go by, the programme is working. Following the Your Moment of Truth classes, the percentage of boys who intervened when they witnessed physical and sexual assault rose from 26 per cent to 74 per cent. Moreover, girls in the programme reported incidence of rape by boyfriends and friends had fallen by 51 per cent. The boys were also less likely to endorse myths about sexual assault.

While the focus is on stopping violence against girls, it also raises the question of sexual violence against boys, which in many cases goes unreported.

Ujamaa extended its programme to include boys because of ingrained attitudes on masculinity and gender relations contribute to sexual violence.

“Men are brought up to believe that women have no say, and that men’s needs are paramount. We try to change that mentality, before it is too late,” he says. The boys also need to feel courageous and confident enough to stop any assault they encounter.

“But they have to stay safe. They shouldn’t get hurt while intervening. If they are at risk, they should call for help and/or involve the authorities.”

The training has led to better gender relations. Where boys used to bully girls or watch as they were attacked, they now protect them. They also take on their fair share of chores at home, even the “girly” ones like washing dishes and cooking.


This story is part of a European Journalism Centre project about men engaging in the fight for women’s rights. Reporting was done in partnership with The Fuller Project for International Reporting


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