by Patrick Gathara
In the last few days, our airwaves and social media accounts are inundated with opinions on what the verbal and physical abuse perpetrated against a female journalist and a female MP mean. I came across an online discussion where some were suggesting that the public humiliation of Kiss FM presenter Caroline Mutoko and Nairobi Women’s Representative Rachel Shebesh at the hands of Nairobi Senator Gideon “Sonko” Mbuvi and Nairobi Governor Evans Kidero, was a ploy to distract attention from the President and his deputy’s problems with the ICC.
I personally find it disturbing that some evidently regarded discussing the violence, humiliation, sexism and exploitation that our women suffer daily as a distraction from more important issues.
How we treat our women is a measure of how we regard ourselves as a society. After all, Wanjiku has become a synonym for ordinary folk, both male and female. We speak of the motherland and ascribe a feminine gender to our national collective. Kenya is a “she” and has “her” interests, we say. The disdain we have for women mirrors the contempt our rulers have for us. When Kidero slaps Shebesh and Sonko insults Mutoko, they are not just putting powerful women in their place. They are expressing their contempt and fear of an empowered society, of a populace that dares to question the actions of their betters. In my view, the problem isn’t that people are talking about Sonko and Kidero. It is that they are ONLY talking about Sonko and Kidero. Not about how they are representative of a societal disdain of women. Not that this attitude is responsible for the silence on the rape epidemic in our towns, the horrors beading and FGM and domestic violence, the lack of investment in maternal health which leads women to be beaten by hospital staff after being forced to give birth on the floor.
It is why when we discuss abortion, we are blind to the dangers that pregnancy poses to women. We have one of the highest rates of maternal deaths in the world. Many lose their jobs or have to forgo their schooling for having the temerity to conceive unwanted kids. Many are ostracized by their families and abandoned by their men. Many have no incomes, no education, no support , to take care of the kids we insist they bear. We refuse to invest in girls education, to protect them, to empower them, to provide sex education and contraception preferring instead to blame them, to call them fornicators and adulterers and murderers, to turn a self-righteous blind eye as they die in their thousands or get maimed for life at the hands of backstreet quacks.
It is never about the men. It is never about the abuse of power. Accept and move on, we tell women. Suck it up. It’s your lot as a woman. You must have done something to deserve it. It is just punishment for your immorality, for the sin of being female.
The parallels between how we speak of the abuse meted out against women and how we speak about the violence meted out against us are hard to ignore. It is always our fault. We drive too fast. We are too tribal or stupid or lazy or ignorant. It is never the fault of those who steal elections or organize and perpetrate the violence. It is never about the brutality, negligence and corruption of officials and officers. It is all our fault for making stupid decisions at the ballot box and we must pay taxes to fund our potentates’ lifestyles as just punishment for our guilt. The poor must forgo drinking milk because the government must have the revenues to build roads for the rich. We do not demand accountability or better because we do not think we deserve such.
Thus the talk on the ICC trials almost completely ignores and excludes the victims. We are only concerned about the safety of the powerful, about what their prosecution means and about whether they are being treated fairly. That 1600 Kenyans died five years ago barely registers. Who cares about them or their stories or their families? Just like the treatment of Mutoko and Shebesh is seen as a distraction, the demand for justice is portrayed as a distraction from the more important pursuit of economic development. Just as Shebesh’s husband apparently feels it is he, not his wife, who deserves an apology from Kidero, the powerful see our lives and livelihoods as mere fodder for their ambitions and can stipulate that accords between political leaders can be a substitute for justice.
No. This is not a frivolous issue or a distraction. It is a conversation we should be having but one we are determined to ignore precisely because it is about women. And because it is really about us.