Mwangovya: The Kenya I want for my daughter
I am seated by the living room window reading a book, more like staring into it. My mind wanders, occasionally glancing outside to catch a glimpse of my daughter riding her bike.
Those who know me can hazard a guess as to the author who makes me ‘tick’ with her affirmation of girls and women – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – but not even her poignant words draw me away from the many thoughts running through my mind as I watch her father motion to her not to ride so fast.
You see, my daughter is twelve years old and very independent. One of her favorite pastimes is cycling. I am happy because it pulls her away from the TV and other electronic gadgets that could take her God knows where- I digress.
I yearn for the time when as children we could go outside to play and wander kilometers from home. Our parents never worried about our safe return – we always made our way back home – exhausted and famished. Sometimes dirty but fulfilled in our adventurous day.
In 2017, one cannot, unfortunately let a child, especially a girl, even 100 meters out of sight without thinking the worst! What happened to us? What became of the adage that in Africa a child is raised by a village?
Am I paranoid? I don’t think so. My head is full of crazy thoughts. Will she be able to use hand signals appropriately? Will the chaotic Nairobi drivers be courteous on the roads? Will she fall given the rugged terrain, littered and sometimes non-existent pedestrian paths? What of the predators and pests? Will she remember not to talk to strangers? What of the “strange” stares? Why do we sexualize children? Why can’t a child be a child in this country? Why would an apparently straight thinking adult look at a child and entertain sexual thoughts?
This reminds me of the court ruling that has made Kenya “famous”, that of a judge who ruled that a 14 year old seemed to have invited sexual advances from an adult!! I am personally not surprised that Justice Juma Chitembwe came out top with the worst court ruling – referring to a ruling with a negative effect on women’s and girls’ rights – as the Kenyan law is quite clear that having sexual intercourse (read defilement) with anyone under 18 is against the law and is punishable by a very stiff sentence.
But are you surprised? Are we collectively surprised? Going by recent social media discussions – some rather heated on this particular ruling – it is clear that we still have a long way to go and are very far from consensus that a child is just that – a child.
Now, if the justice system will not protect my child because some in it believe that she can ‘entertain’ sexual advances and ‘consent’ to ‘whatever’ is suggested, should I then continue reading my book or should I be outside watching her like a hawk?
This fear notwithstanding, we as parents have allowed her to venture and at times she has grown wings and gone even further away and out of our sight and we have continued to pray for her safety. But this has not been without incident. Twice she has fallen and almost been hit by a car.
Men have beckoned her. This made my skin crawl and my insides burn with anger. As parents we soldier on and constantly seek to empower her to know when to run…when to say no…when to abandon her cycling mission, her dad chaperons her now and again. She is one lucky girl, privileged even. Let us take a moment, think about her peers who may not relate or identify with this narrative.
Where do I even begin with empowering her? I want her to live in freedom and safety not in fear and confusion and not surely in a sanitized bubble where everything is rosy. What I want for her is a future where she will not be violated or put down simply because she is a girl.
From my experience and observation, for pre-teens and teens it is a critical time, when we should be affirming girls to grow up into confident and empowered young women. Unfortunately, that is when we clamp down on them so hard – be it in school, at home, in public spaces and the larger society.
I am reminded of a question I received when my colleagues from Equality Now and I visited a school to have a conversation on sexual violence among other issues. It made me wonder, what has happened to adults and the community at large?
A young girl wrote on a piece of paper anonymously: “I was raped just before coming to school and I have not reported because I am afraid. My uncle always assaults me and I am afraid to say”.
These experiences have strengthened my resolve to jealously protect and uphold the role of schools as safe havens and spaces that allow our children to grow into their full unhampered potential.
I yearn for a country where the narrative around girls’ and women’s’ leadership and participation in public life is positive and uplifting.
As Chimamanda put it, a country where… “We do not teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We do not say to girls, you can have ambition but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise you would threaten the man.” A country that respects the rule of law and the Constitution and especially the provisions that speak to gender equality.
It saddens me that, 7 years after the adoption of Kenya’s constitution 2010, the struggle on implementation of provisions that speak to women’s equal representation in political and appointive roles.
What will it take though? How do we kill the persistent narrative that demeans girls and women? How can we increasingly affirm girls especially on their leadership potential? How can we breakdown stereotypes?
As my daughter comes back home, with her father in tow, I put my book aside just to hug her and whisper a silent thankful prayer.
Flavia Mwangovya, Senior Program Officer, Legal Equality
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