Linda Kavuka: The African Woman’s Quest for Dignity, Respect and Liberty

Last November, Nairobi, Kenya saw one of the largest protests against sexual violence ever held. It was dubbed #MyDressMyChoice. Nearly 1,000 women and men took to the streets to protest against vicious public attacks on women, reported from various parts of the country. Videos of the attacks were posted on social media and showed women being undressed by mobs of men, who tore at their clothes, claiming that the women were “indecently” dressed and “deserved to be taught a lesson.”

If that was not enough humiliation, the mobs would then beat the women ruthlessly – kicking them on their private parts. Keep in mind that all of this happened in broad daylight!

At the time, such attacks were gaining momentum in Sub-Saharan Africa including Kenya, South Africa, Malawi and Zimbabwe. The attackers would justify their actins by claiming the women were dressed indecently or that the women refused to respond to their cat calls.

A good number of people supported the attacks and even had their own campaign on social media,  #NudityIsNotMyChoice. It begs an obvious question: what does one’s choice of dress have to do with an attack on her body? Should any person be sexually attacked because their way dressing is not “moral” enough? Furthermore, what even is “moral” when it comes to dressing? A Muslim, Christian, Hindu and an African traditionalist, if asked, would definitely not agree on a unified mode of modest dressing!

For the women attacked, there are clearly various human rights issues at play. The freedom of movement of these ladies was hindered. They were illegally defamed. Their dignity as rights-bearing people was tarnished. And, worst of all, they were assaulted, all of which are serious crimes against the person and the liberty of individuals — and are nominally protected against under Kenyan law.

This is, however, somewhat unsurprising, given the horrifically violent traditions around women that many in sub-Saharan Africa still accept.

From culture and religion comes an ancient practice, often defended and upheld by the women themselves. Female Genital Mutilation (commonly known by its initials FGM) is widely carried out in countries in Africa and the Middle East as well as in some Asian countries. From the cultural perspective, it is a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood which ushers girls toward womanhood and marriage. From a religious perspective, the women claim that it is one of the religious requirements of the Muslim faith, and that the practice is “Sunnah” (despite the fact that this tradition cannot be found anywhere in the Qur’an or Hadith!)

The practice is today carried out under the cover of darkness to avoid the prying eyes of women’s rights advocates and government forces. This traditional (but illegal) practice often happens during school breaks, including the long December holiday, as girls and families travel to their rural ancestral homes.

Female genital mutilation has resulted in birth complications as well as the spread of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections, through the use of crude and unsterilized equipment during group rituals. In some instances, heavy bleeding has led to the death of young girls. The practice involves the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia on girls as young as nine.

In an interview as to why she supports the practice, one of the cutters from Kenya stated that, “Girls are cut to ensure they remain faithful because the sexual organ is not there anymore. When you are cut you are docile, waiting for your husband because after you are cut, sex is for having children not for anything else.”

I first became aware of this practice when I was in primary school. Luckily, the community I come from does not practice  FGM (and is one of the few in Kenya to never have done so). One of my playmates, however, was from the Maasai community, and I was told that she was to be circumcised when she came of age. My playmates from the Somali community were circumcised when they were 7 years old.

When I joined high school and read one of the books listed on our compulsory reading list, Half a Day and Other Stories by Ayieba Clarke, I was moved by a specific story, “Against the pleasure principle.” It was only at this time that I fully understood the practice and the main reason that FGM is carried out!

Aside from the physical disability imposed by such a practice, there is a mental slavery at work in forcing girls to undergo this practice without being accorded the right to understand it and make a choice.

Recently, the governments of Nigeria and Gambia joined Kenya by passing laws against FGM. While this is a positive step, it will not work as a deterrent measure. Instead, our people need to be better informed of what the practice is, how it is done, and the effects it has on the girls and their future lives. We need to teach this topic in our schools, religious gatherings, community meetings — everywhere we can. We can only end this outdated practice with joint effort from all stakeholders, not through government force.

Gender-based violence in Africa is still all too common. While talking about sexual violence is a good start, we also need to follow up with action. Violence is violence, and it must be stopped. Let us all join forces, for the sake of the freer future that we seek, and demand both respect and liberty for all people, across races, across borders, and regardless of one’s gender!

Linda Kavuka is a Lawyer from Kenya. This piece was initially published by Women for Liberty . Photo: