From a very young age, growing up in Kenya, I had to deal with street harassment frequently in my town. Men often try to threaten you to see how scared you are, or try to intimidate you to make you feel as if you are in danger. As you walk, men hold your hand and try to pull you to their side. Many try to toss out compliments about how beautiful you are, forgetting that they are forcefully holding your hand and that they are strangers. If you react in an aggressive manner, they can get violent and diminish your self-esteem by telling you how ugly you are.
Street harassment in Kenya is so common that it has become socially acceptable. This closes every door and platform for women to stand up and speak out against it with confidence. Society has made women accept street harassment as the norm, and if you complain about it, you are seen as weak. It has not been seriously addressed because women can’t even comfortably report it to the relevant authorities. It is seen as less important compared to other crimes.
One day, while walking home from my Saturday fellowship in town, I was less than a meter away from our front gate when a man stopped his car next to me and started whistling at me asking if I wanted a ride. He proceeded to call me all kinds of weird names that irritated me more. Inside the car were two men who were in their mid-30s. I composed myself and said, “No,” as I continued to walk. The scary part was when he actually pulled over in front of me, leaving me shocked and wondering what he really wanted. Thankfully, a bus stopped nearby and I boarded it, shaken. As the bus departed, I saw the car turning and going the opposite direction.
Most of the time I tend to ignore unwanted advances. When men see you have no interest in them, they tend to leave you alone. Other times, even if you’re scared, you just need to be bold and tell them to leave you alone. Once they realize they don’t actually scare you, they usually let you go.
For example, a friend of mine was walking home one night in Nairobi when a drunkard started following her. She tried to increase her pace, but the man kept following. It got to a point where she finally stopped and confronted him. When he tried to get near her, she slapped him, and that is how he ended up letting her go.
For street harassment to come to an end, laws must be made and enforced. Street harassment should not be seen as a normal thing because it is demeaning and dangerous.
The government should take the initiative to advertise and raise awareness against street harassment. For women, we should stand up and protect our fellow women. If you see a woman being harassed, don’t just leave them: help them. If you see she is being harassed by more than one man and you can’t intervene by yourself, find help.
If we women don’t take care of each other, then we become part of the reason why harassment continues.
Maureen Kosen is 21 years old and attending Catholic University of Eastern Africa in Nairobi, Kenya where she is studying family law.