By: Naomi Mwaura
In November 2014, hundreds of people joined the #MyDressMyChoice protest in Kenya after three men (including the bus driver and bus conductor) robbed, stripped and sexually assaulted a woman in September in an empty public bus at the Millennium petrol station in Githurai 44, Nairobi county. They video recorded the attack and the video subsequently went viral, sparking outrage.
Since 2013, Flone Initiative has been working to create safe commuter spaces and professionalism in the public transport industry in Kenya. To advance this mission, I was among the lead organizers of the 2014 protest. Our goal was to stop the increased number of cases of stripping of women and girls in public transport vehicles and terminals.
Now, nearly three years later, on July 19th 2017, the three men involved in the Sept. 2014 incident have been sentenced to death as well as to 25 years each in prison. This is one of the two landmark cases in court involving the sexual assault and robbery of women in the public transport industry. The other case being held in Makadara law court involves a woman hawker who was robbed, stripped and sexually assaulted in Kayole.
No executions have been carried out in Kenya since 1987, when Hezekiah Ochuka and Pancras Oteyo Okumu were hanged for treason. In 2009, Kenya commuted all death sentences to life imprisonment, impacting over 4,000 death row inmates. Despite the lack of executions, death sentences are still passed in Kenya.
I believe that life is precious. Hence, I feel uncomfortable with the possibility of loss of life. However, I can not ignore the heinous acts that the accused committed, the scars and trauma that the victim has to live with and the dangers that the accused pose to public transport users (especially women who make up the majority of public transport users).
Public silence and judicial inertia have ensured that rates of violence against women are often vastly under-reported and that offenders often go unpunished. This ruling changes the norm and, as such, plays an important symbolic role, by indicating that such behavior is socially unacceptable and will not go unpunished. This sentence serves a deterrence function to perpetrators and encourages victims to report. I commend the judicial system for being responsive to the victim by providing protection and handling the case with appropriate sensitivity. The ruling may be appealed but it is our hope that the judicial system will not falter. We look forward to a similar ruling in the Kayole case.
As the magistrate in this current case noted, “What you (the accused) thought was a joke should not be taken lightly, as a woman’s privacy and decency should be respected at all times.” This ruling is the strong message needed to criminalize violence against women and reaffirm the rights of women to live free of violence in public spaces, especially the transport industry, which has been plagued with various forms of violence against women.
I feel honoured to have supported the cause and, most importantly, to see justice in my lifetime.
As the rule of law takes it’s course, Flone Initiative will continue addressing the underlying norms and behaviours associated with violence against women in the transport system by training PSV operators on customer service, prevention of sexual violence and professional development, as well as working to increase the number of women employed in the industry.
Let’s make a toast: To Justice! It’s been over three years of waiting but it’s been worth the wait. Cheers!
Sending a life free of violence and love your way,
Founding Director, Flone Initiative