The movement tackling sexual harassment at Kenya’s universities
Across Kenya, students are starting to speak out and challenge a problem they say plagues the country’s campuses.
Nairobi, Kenya – Diana perched on a brown bench in one of Nairobi University’s large lecture theatres, twisting her fingers into pretzel-like shapes. She scanned the room. To her left, students waited eagerly to hear her story. To her right, an open window – the banner on the wall below gently flapped in the breeze.
She pulled out her phone. A quick swipe showed no new messages. She smoothed down her maroon skirt, took a deep breath and walked on stage.
In front of a 500-strong crowd in November last year, the 20-year-old – who prefers we use her middle name due to the sensitive and deeply personal nature of her message – took the microphone and began to speak about her experience of being sexually harassed on campus.
One of four speakers, she was at the launch of #CampusMeToo, a campaign by ActionAid and UN Women which was aiming to raise awareness of an issue they said plagues Kenya’s universities.
‘So many things happened’
Diana says she was violated by one of her lecturers at Kenyatta University (KU) – one of Kenya’s largest higher learning institutions, located in Kahawa, Nairobi. Over a period of several months, her world changed beyond recognition.
“My life [before university] consisted of school and my parents,” she explains. “I didn’t know what university was [going to be] like. I just thought: “Why are all these things happening? Is this normal?” If I said no to his advances … I didn’t want to jeopardise my academic work.”
Diana has led an ordinary life: She loves Marvel films; her mother, Hellen, is a fan of the British royal family and named her youngest daughter after the late Princess of Wales; she watches a lot of Lewis Capaldi music videos on YouTube and, on weekends, she often rides her bike towards the Kenya-Tanzania border for fun.
Growing up, she was close to her three older brothers. The youngest of five siblings, her boyishness continued throughout school. She always had a lot of male friends, but that changed at university. After the harassment began, she started to feel awkward around them. If she wanted to hang out, she would call one of her female friends. She only felt safe – or safer – with them, she says.
When a place became available on her preferred course at KU in September 2017, Diana transferred to there from another university out of town. By that point, the term had already started.
“From the first day I walked into class [the lecturer] must have noticed I was a new student trying to catch up,” she explains. “One time I told him the students would like more copies of the lecture notes. He told me to go to his office. When I got there, he closed the curtains, closed the door and … so many things happened.”
To avoid her relentless harasser, she says, she switched to a different course. But the lecturer persisted. She started to blame herself, and her self-esteem plummeted. As depression kicked in and her mental health deteriorated, she began to lose touch with friends.
“I was really scared of him,” she says. “People warned me: ‘Don’t mess with this guy,’ so even after I changed course, he’d call me and I’d still go and meet him. I didn’t want to get on the wrong side of him. He made me feel so terrible.”
Diana did not report her lecturer – or the harassment – to the university. “I didn’t have any evidence,” she says. Now a third-year student, she has changed her telephone number and tries to avoid him.
There's a lot of guilt. One of my greatest fears is being misunderstood ... I was petrified and didn't want my grades to be affected. I'm a student leader; I worried the other students might not believe me.
She pauses, before adding: “There’s a lot of guilt. One of my greatest fears is being misunderstood. For somebody to be like: ‘Why were you doing all these things?’ I was petrified and I didn’t want my grades to be affected. I’m a student leader; I worried the other students might not believe me. They know me as a very vocal person, and here I am struggling with my own problems, suffering silently. I felt like I didn’t have a choice.”
‘I have power’
So she did nothing, until several months ago.
Diana wanted advice on starting a YouTube channel about mental health and sought out her friend who ran a support club for students on campus. That day, her friend was having a meeting about how KU students would promote the #CampusMeToo movement. “I had never heard of it before,” she says. “But I knew immediately that I wanted to be involved.”
Nearly three years after all this began, Diana stood strong while addressing fellow students during the campaign last November. Facing her peers, she told them: “No other student needs to go through what I’ve been through. We’re scared and it needs to stop.”
The crowd punctuated the silence with shouts of “Nina Power!”. The phrase roughly translates as “I have power” in Swahili. These simple yet powerful words have become almost a calling card for a new generation of young Africans – men and women – who are demanding urgent change.
While the cheers erupted, Diana quietly passed the mic on to the next speaker.
“Have you ever watched the Ellen DeGeneres show?” she asks, several weeks after the campaign launch. We are in a coffee shop in the Central Business District of Nairobi. Outside, cars hoot angrily at each other. “I would like to do something like that in Kenya.”
Diana speaks in a low voice and is fiercely smart. Whether it is British politics or Kenya’s economy, she has an informed opinion on the matter. But what really interests her is the idea of becoming a chat-show host. “I’m good at communicating. When I talk to people, they feel encouraged,” she says.
These days, she is heavily involved with the #CampusMeToo campaign. Until recently, she was also a student leader, something she signed up to do in her second week at KU. The role involves mediating between the institution and students.
“Students started coming to me,” she says. “They’d say: ‘Oh I heard you talk about this, maybe you can help.'”
Sexual harassment is a big problem. A recent survey by ActionAid revealed that half of all female Kenyan students and a quarter of male students in higher learning institutions had been sexually harassed. The latest figures from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics show that approximately 40 percent of Kenya’s near-515,000 university students were female in 2018/2019. While the ratio of men-to-women has not changed in 10 years, the overall number of students has. In 2008/2009, there were fewer than 125,000 university students in the country, meaning the size of the issue of harassment on campus has grown.
“The issue is huge and needs to be dealt with,” Leah Wanjama, a senior lecturer at KU, explains over the phone. “And it’s not only KU, it’s happening at many other universities in Kenya.”
Sex for grades
The problem has also been highlighted elsewhere on the continent. In October 2019, the BBC documentary, Sex for Grades, showed widespread harassment at universities in Nigeria and Ghana – capturing specific instances of young women and men propositioned sexually by their tutors in order to improve – or keep – their grades.
“There is so much being done to fight the problem across Africa,” says 21-year-old Caesarine Mulobi in the garden of ActionAid Kenya’s office in West Nairobi. A recent graduate of Nairobi University, she got involved after hearing one too many stories of harassment, although she has never experienced it herself.
“I’ve seen a #CampusMeToo movement in Uganda, and [as a result of the BBC documentary] the Nigerian Senate reintroduced a law on sexual harassment in higher learning institutions. This is the right time for us to talk about this issue.”
Until recently, very few have spoken out. “The problem is rampant,” says Mulobi, shielding her eyes from the sun, “but without evidence, it’s really difficult. Some of [the lecturers] are really smart: They won’t text you, they’ll just call you.”
Systems do exist to help. Many universities have gender departments and sexual harassment policies in place to deal with issues of gender-based violence. At KU, for example, the Centre for Gender Equity and Empowerment is tasked with raising awareness of the gender problems affecting the university and provides new students with a booklet titled Stop Sexual Harassment!, which includes information on how to report incidents.
But it is not that simple, argues Mulobi. “We have laws and policies in place but the problem is implementation. Even if you do report someone, they’ll be cautioned and you’ll still see them around the university. And then there’s the stigma: What if people think you wanted it?”
Diana is well aware of the risks. She oscillates between fire-cracker certainty and unease. “I want to do this,” she says on several occasions, “but I’m also apprehensive.”
When Diana’s friends are asked to describe her in one word, they reply unanimously: Brave.
“Nothing is too scary for her,” says Wambui*, one of Diana’s closest friends (who did not want her real name used in this story).
Her decision to help others by supporting and speaking at the #CampusMeToo campaign, which was staged at 20 universities across Kenya, is testament to that.
At KU, a team of more than 30 student leaders came on campus and made as much noise as they could about sexual harassment. The days were long and draining. Diana would rise early, her head often only hitting the pillow again after midnight. “It took everything out of me,” she says. “But it was exciting.”
Thousands of students flocked to their small wooden table, signing a petition calling on universities to prioritise the issue. Many hung around, discussing, dreaming, plotting and planning.
“We’re used to events on campus,” says Martin Omondi, 29, a Public Health graduate from Mount Kenya University who is also involved in the campaign. “But this was something different.” He has not personally experienced sexual harassment but, as a student leader, has helped others report incidents.
Dressed in identical white “Nina Power” t-shirts, he and Diana told visitors the same thing: “If you’ve been harassed, don’t cry alone, there is someone, an office, a channel to follow,” Martin explains.
The aim was to raise awareness but it was not all smooth sailing. While many students eagerly signed their name, some opposed the campaign.
“One time,” says Diana, “this guy came up to me at Nairobi University and said: ‘I want to sign against you.’ He said these things are always blown out of proportion, that we’re denying women and men the freedom of expression. Some students had this idea that we were jealous of other female students having affairs with the lecturers.”
She shakes her head: “I don’t get that.”
Victim-blaming was also a recurring theme, says Diana. People wanted to know whether female students were dressed appropriately, or where they had been hanging out.
For Martin, the lack of understanding of the issue was most shocking. Many were unsure what constituted sexual harassment, let alone how they could go about reporting it.
Once the team explained exactly what harassment looked like, many people started coming forward, saying they had been victims too.
“We gave them examples: If a lecturer seduces or touches you in a compromising way, or asks for any sexual favours in return for marks, that is a red flag,” he says.
“Once the team explained exactly what harassment looked like, many people started coming forward saying they had been victims too. We just kept repeating: ‘You don’t need to be afraid’.”
More than 10,000 students have now signed a national petition calling on universities to prioritise this issue and enact real change, both online and offline. Their demands include mandatory induction sessions on sexual harassment, yearly training sessions for university staff and the appointment of an investigation committee that students can approach when they have received unfair or missing marks. The petition was handed over in December last year to representatives from the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Public Service, Youth and Gender in a ceremony at the end of the campaign.
“This is a timely intervention on the vice of sexual harassment that has taken root in our institutions,” wrote Margaret Kobia, cabinet secretary to the Ministry of Youth and Gender, in a statement. “I am glad that we are raising our voices to break the silence.”
While the ministry “strongly” supported the five demands made by the campaign, there is no information about whether they will be implemented, says Mathias Kure, a campaign manager for ActionAid. The organisation is conducting follow-up conversations with both government and university officials.
Still, several institutions have begun to pay attention. The University of Nairobi told ActionAid that they are eager to “work to end this injustice from early 2020”, while the Technical University of Kenya’s vice chancellor also confirmed it would commit to ending the issue.
The students, however, want results. Diana worries she will not be able to avoid her alleged harasser forever. “I’m a little scared,” she says. “I don’t know how that will go.”
If nothing changes, both Martin and Diana talk of changing tactic: Calling out names, using videos to record evidence and protesting with placards.
Right now, Diana is taking a break. You get the impression she would rather forget all of this, but something in her propels her forward.
“There is more to be done,” she says, determinedly. “And I’m ready.”
Additional reporting by Moraa Obiria. This story was a collaboration between Al Jazeera, The Fuller Project for International Reporting, and Kenya’s The Daily Nation.