In almost every country in Africa, women complain about sexual harassment in public spaces. Perhaps one of the worst spaces, and one that most women and girls can't avoid, is on public transport.
Some years ago in South Africa, the sexual assault of a young woman at a taxi rank prompted women across the country to flood newspapers and radio stations with their own stories of abuse in the local combis. Whether it be the chapas in Mozambique, matolas in Malawi, or ETs in Zimbabwe, local minibus transport can be a traumatic daily experience for girls and women. However, in Kenya, small changes to matatu laws have made a big difference.
At a recent COP 17 meeting, I saw John Njoroge Michuki, the Kenyan Minister for Environment and Natural Resources, who spoke at a briefing with Kenyan government representatives and partners. He called for action to implement plans laid out to combat the effects of climate change. Not many ministers in the Kenyan government can casually say that it is time to stop writing plans, rather, it's time to get going on concrete actions. But Michuki can, and does.
Michuki is a man known for driving action. He is credited with implementing reforms in the public transport sector that outlawed standing in matatus (public taxis), overloading and overspeeding. Prior to the "Michuki laws," passengers were stacked in matatus like potatoes in a sack, or is it vegetables? The more one could squeeze in, the better. Losing money and other valuables, such as cell phones, to pickpockets was the norm rather than the exception.
However, for many Kenyan women, the most disturbing thing about a matatu ride was worrying about the man standing behind you. Worry if that man, young or old, would take advantage of the pushing and shoving and the sudden breaks that the driver would engage to push forward and sexually harass you, the woman in front.
Sitting with colleagues at COP 17, I shared the view that Michuki's rules were to be celebrated as a victory, particularly as we mark 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence; the men were surprised. They had not really seen this angle to the benefits of the Michuki laws.
However, they did know the problem well. One of them told the story of a woman who arrived home with a wet patch on her backside as a man had ejaculated as he pushed against her in a matatu. "That incident enraged her husband, who went and bought her a car the next day," he narrated.
Not all women who suffered such injustice and violation in the matatu could manage to remove themselves from this environment. The matatu ride was a necessary evil.
Sometimes it resulted in one leaving the matatu in anger, at the man who was pushing behind, the man who moved forward when you moved forward to create some space between you and him, anger at yourself for not speaking out, naming and shaming the man. Not to mention anger at the men and women who witnessed this violation and turned away in shame, sharing your shame but not speaking out to save you from it.
But today, that is a thing of the past. Thanks to Michuki laws.
I realised that if I had had a chance to speak to the minister, I would have spoken to him, not about climate change but about 16 days and what his fight inadvertently won for the women.
Thank you honourable Michuki for eliminating sexual harassment in matatus.
We need such actions by men in positions of influence in all countries to create spaces where women and men are safe from sexual violence and related violations, such as emotional and verbal abuse. It is important to highlight and recognise the contribution men make in the fight against gender violence. We need to acknowledge the work of that male mentor who demonstrates through his words and actions that women should be respected and that no one is a drum.
I salute the men who work to end gender violence in our communities. In the same vein, I would urge the men negotiating at the COP17 on behalf our nations to remember the work of the women, to include the voice of the women and to mainstream gender in climate change work.
Florence Sipalla is a programme officer and sub-editor with African Woman and Child Feature Service (AWC). This article is part of the GL Opinion and Commentary Service and AWCFS special series for the Sixteen Days of Activism on Gender Violence and COP 17 Conference.
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