By Ohaga Ohaga
Since the advent of COVID-19 in Kenya, there has been a spike in gender-based violence (GBV) in the country.
For instance, barely a month after the first lockdown on April 2, 2020, the National Council on Administration of Justice (NCAJ) released a statement saying sexual offenses had risen significantly following the government’s announcement of the 7 PM -5 AM curfew.
But it is the most recent GBV incidences that have emphasized the immediate need to relook at how we approach gender-based violence and its connection to other human rights such as freedom of expression, right to an opinion; freedom of the media, and human dignity in Kenya.
On Thursday, March 25, Radio Africa-owned Homeboyz Radio presenters were accused of “victim-shaming” a sexual violence survivor during the morning show. Shaffie Weru, Neville Musya, and Joseph Munoru alias DJ Joe Mfalme were referring to an incident where Eunice Wangari Wakimbi 20-year-old woman whose boyfriend, whom she met on Facebook, allegedly threw her from the 12th floor of a building while they were drinking on their first date.
It’s this occurrence that provided Kenyans with the best opportunity to relook and rethink how to approach GBV. It is also this incidence that Shaffie premised his comments and asked his radio audience if they think such ladies are “too lose” and “too available. “Do you think Kenyan chiles (slang) are too available? Are they too loose, too willing, too desperate and that’s why they get themselves caught up in such situations?” Shaffie had asked. However, what was lost in the entire debate is what Shaffie said after that… He told the audience that women should play hard to get and occasionally be unavailable and urged women to stop going out to drink with men whenever called upon.
Opinion is heavily divided on whether these comments were meant to start up a debate or to victimize a sexual violence survivor. Shaffie’s remarks soon drew nationwide debate and created two groups. The Left and the Right.
To the left, were men and women who quickly assumed the role of high priests and chief moralists. They knew everything about gender-based violence and anyone with divergent opinions was regarded as a rape apologist, GBV enabler, male supremacist, or a ”whataboutism” purveyor. The Left was the prosecutor, judge, and juror in the matter.
To the right were men and women who felt Shaffie and company were right. That women must no ‘eat fare’ and that Eunice shouldn’t have been in the building with a man she barely knew. They regarded the Left as marriage washouts, toxic feminists, and boy-child emasculators. They were the defense and witness in the matter.
A matter that was supposed to be a conversation starter was immediately turned into a gender war. Daggers were drawn and guns were cocked. Sober opinions were drowned by the loudest speakers. Only those with lethal and sharp tongues thrived. The debate was chaotic, disorderly, and dramatic.
Gender issues in this country are like land matters. Often emotive and highly flammable. In practice nonetheless, best laws aren’t made when people are comfortable but when they are not. This was an uncomfortable moment but it offered us the best chance to tackle GBV issues. It was supposed to be a conversation starter. Especially because the matter was touching on the media practice and had gained a lot of traction on social media.
This was the time to unpack Shaffie’s comments and interrogate them. This was the time to talk to our girls about ‘eating fare’ and our boys about not expecting sex after sending fare. This was the time to tell our girls, listen danger lurks where you least expect it. This was the time to remind the men that sexual consent is non-negotiable. This was the time to ask Shaffie; why do you think such acts by women warrants them to be termed as ‘’too loose’’ or ‘’too available’’? But we didn’t take that opportunity rather we wanted instant justice. Indeed, the justice prevailed but did this further the agenda on the GBV campaign? What message have both sides taken home?
We lost a chance that would have turned into opportunities like civic education on gender sensitivity, and trainings for all media practitioners, because let’s face it, Shaffie’s thoughts are shared by many men and women outside the parameters of Homeboyz Radio. These are daily conversations amongst Kenyans. These are daily conversations on social media.
According to the 2014 Kenya Demographic and Health Survey (KDHS), 45 percent of women aged 15-49 have experienced physical violence since 15. 14 percent of women aged 15-49 report having experienced sexual violence at least once in their lifetime. Overall, 39 percent of ever-married women age 15-49 report having experienced spousal physical or sexual violence. This a confirmation that GBV is a serious going concern here.
Shaffie’s comments offered us a chance to relook at the ways of the man and how he thinks of women. We needed to stop for a moment and ask ourselves, why is Shaffie saying this? Is there a basis for his comments?
For us to end GBV in Kenya we must allow men to speak their minds. It’s until we achieve this that we will end GBV. Look at it this way, men are the custodian of culture in this country. In many communities, they are the opinion leaders. Also, they are the leaders in most households. Over and above that, GBV doesn’t only affect women. It affects men too. We must therefore look at it from both sides.
Unless we indulge men to tell us how they feel about the same in an uncensored, unedited, and unfiltered manner we will make policies that exist only in paper but not in practice. It is through these ‘’insensitive’’ thoughts that we can then develop the best policies and have the same entrenched in our daily lives and workplaces. Disallowing the people to share their opinions means that you have policies that work for only one side. Victimization of men for saying something is the reason many have cowered in silence and finds it difficult coming out even when they are the victims of GBV.
Two, for us to amplify our voices in the fight against the GBV, we need media as allies. To be an effective ally, it must feel free to offer that platform. The media is supposed to bring to fore issues that make us uncomfortable while still observing the law. To censor it for doing that is essentially killing the conversation.
Because we attached so many emotions to the matter and blew the entire conversation out of proportion, we missed the opportunity to address the many grey errors that exist in the fight against gender-based violence in this country.
Three, we suffer from over legislation of media laws. We have so many bodies with attachment to media practice. Whereas we have a journalism code of conduct that is enforced by the Media Council of Kenya, it’s the Kenya Communications Authority of Kenya that rushed into penalizing the presenters and the media house. On this matter alone, three bodies had interest. The Communications Authority, Media Council of Kenya, and National Gender and Equality Commission (NGEC).
Communications Authority of Kenya had an opportunity to turn the punishment meted on Homeboyz Radio into an awareness creation, sensitization, and civic education moment for not just the station but to all the media practitioners and general public. We could have achieved so much by keeping the radio on-air teaching Kenyans than closing it down.
The punishment is a deterrent but it doesn’t stop the gender insensitivity talks. That apart, the station was fined 1million shillings but this is almost the same salary as Shaffie’s in a month. The licenses have been suspended but the thoughts haven’t been. Homeboyz is off air but many other radio stations thrive on explicit and adult-rated content still on air.
This was a moral and ethical issue rather than a legal one. And that is why, even the MCK noted in its statement saying… “in line with the enforcement process, the MCK issued a notice demanding retraction and apology for violation of clauses 21, 23 and 24 of the journalism codes of conduct, that speak to use of pictures and names, acts of violence and editor’s responsibility’’.
Presently, the debate has gone silent, and conversation has largely been forgotten except for the victims and their families.
Every person has inherent dignity and the right to have that dignity respected and protected as is envisaged under Article 28 of the Constitution. But the same Constitution provides for freedom of expression under Article 33 and freedom of the media under Article 34.
One law doesn’t outweigh the other. That is to say that we can’t uphold someone’s right to human dignity by violating another right to an opinion. We must not use the law selectively but decisively? GBV victims have suffered loss of dignity but does this mean that any thought regarding them should be suspended because of their loss? Who decides what is a right or a wrong opinion? Was Shaffie and company wrong for expressing their opinions? How do we strike a balance between the right of speech and respect for human dignity? Does the right to speak outweigh the right to human dignity?
We must learn to be tolerant of other people’s views even if we don’t agree with them. That’s is how democracy works and is nurtured. In this case, we missed the chance because the issue was blown out proposition and the issues that emerged were swallowed by non -issues, and sober voices were drowned by the loudest speakers.
These gender wars in Kenya can either aggravate the problem of GBV or can lead to a solution. To succeed, we must stop with the mixed messaging and double standards in fighting GBV. We can’t blow hot when it’s about the woman and cold when it’s the man. Women’s rights are human rights. Men’s rights are human rights. None is superior to the other. It’s about agreeing that the energy we use in dealing with violence against women is the same we apply when the man is the victim.
The author is a Kenyan journalist, writer, and communication specialist with a special interest in media law and political communication.