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Ending violence requires open discussions about stereotypes and norms: opinion piece by Dr. Ademola Olajide, UNFPA Representative in Kenya and Anne Mutavati, Kenya Country Representative UN Women

Sexual violence is not a women’s problem, nor a girl’s problem. It is an entire society’s problem because it affects us all. Breaking down harmful stereotypes and bringing men and boys into the conversation are two of the most important norm changes we collectively need to nurture.

Sexual violence and harassment take place in our homes, public spaces, workplaces, in our streets and in our education institutions.  Exposure is heightened in conflict and emergency contexts. During COVID-19, violence in the home has become what the global community calls, the ‘shadow pandemic’. Reports from Kenya’s national helpline that responds to sexual and gender-based violence shows a huge spike in calls since the pandemic began.


Women and girls in Kenya often experience alternate but equally damaging forms of sexual and gender-based violence, both mentally and physically, including child, early and forced marriage, female genital mutilation and femicide. One in three women globally are affected by gender-based violence, and in Kenya, statistics record 45% affected are women and girls aged 15-49. 1 in 5  women have suffered from female genital mutilation in Kenya and 23%  of the nation’s girls are married before their eighteenth birthday , 4% are married before their fifteenth  birthday. Exact numbers of rape and sexual assaults are difficult to assert due to reluctance or fear for victims to report it and inefficiency in addressing the reports adequately because of lack of capacity and resources, and sometimes will. 


We are daily witnesses to “rape culture”, sometimes even silent bystanders. Society has entrenched the use of misogynistic language, the objectification of women’s bodies on screens, indifference to consent, and the glamorization of violence in advertisements. Victim-blaming, trivializing of rape and the stigma faced by survivors are still far too common. The understanding of mutual consent: that only yes means yes, given freely without manipulation or coercion – is paramount in the prevention and eradication of rape and sexual harassment.  


Male involvement in ending sexual and gender based violence is particularly crucial as many Kenyan communities remain highly patriarchal. As authority figures, men hold more power and influence over decision making in the social domain and are often considered the custodians of culture. They are in a position to determine the cultural traits, behaviours and social practices that are viewed as either good or harmful.  


The socialization of boys at an early age can have a long-term impact in shifting gender norms. Some harmful traditional notions of masculinity have been identified as the key drivers of aggression among the male gender. These include expectations of what it is “to be a man,” where boys are expected to be physically strong, aggressive, showing little emotion in order to maintain the tough persona. What boys learn about expectations of femininity and the value of women and girls at home and in the community also shapes their attitudes towards gender based violence.


Efforts should aim at engaging men on the dangers of toxic masculinity and internalized gender bias that can be harmful to the well-being of women and girls. By teaching boys about healthy masculinity, as well as the links between gender inequality and violence against women, we can begin to promote positive behaviours and attitudes towards women’s rights, while eliminating harmful gender stereotypes.  


The Government of Kenya has clear legislation and policies on preventing and responding to gender-based violence. The State Department for Gender is coordinating efforts from a multi sectoral approach to advocate for this cause. The President of Kenya, H.E. Uhuru Kenyatta has made firm commitments towards the eradication of gender-based violence and harmful practices by 2030 and to eradicate the practice of FGM by 2022. This strong commitment and leadership is a source of inspiration for all actors, including cultural and religious leaders and it calls for concerted efforts to stop the violation of human rights.