By Salome Nthenya Nzuki

Some years ago Anne[1], escaped being raped while on transit from campus to see a friend. She boarded a bus which was almost full however all the passengers alighted before she reached her final destination. It was just the bus conductor and Anne seated at the passengers’ seats. The bus conductor started flirting with Anne and requested she put on a seat belt so as to avoid arrest as he claimed there was a police check ahead.

Anne pulled her neck out of the window slightly to see if she could spot any police but saw none. When she turned her eyes back to the inside of the car, the conductor had his penis out of his trousers and was approaching her to grab and rape her. Despite being petrified, Anne knew she had to act fast to save herself.  She swiftly pushed the bus conductor away and made for the door, quickly opened it, jumped out of the speeding vehicle and fell hard onto the tarmac.  She was lucky not to have broken any bones or worse still, been run over by oncoming vehicles.

Anne notes that she managed to escape this situation because she had sat on a seat close to the door. She had observed how the bus conductor opened and locked the door as several passengers alighted, which is why she was able to open the door quickly during her escape. She had also refrained from fastening her seatbelt at the request of the conductor. It is sad that a safety gadget like a safety belt can turn out to be a hazard for women. Had Anne fastened her seatbelt, as she should have, she would have spent time trying to unfasten it and would not have made an escape on time, probably getting raped in the process.

This ordeal left Anne terrified. She did not report the case to the police because she wasn’t sure the police would take her claims seriously. Furthermore, a friend advised her that as long as she survived the ordeal, she should let it go and forget about the entire experience. Anne says that the incident replays in her mind every time she boards a commuter bus, especially at night. To this date, she notes down the number plate of buses and taxis she boards and notifies a friend of the same.

Many Kenyan women, just like Anne, have encountered sexual harassment while moving from one place to the other using public transport. These forms of sexual harassment range from aggressive catcalling, spanking, touching of body parts and in extreme cases rape by bus conductors and idlers at bus stops. In 2014 a woman was robbed, stripped and raped by a gang of commuter bus crew on a Nairobi bus. Worse still, the perpetrators were bold enough to film the heinous act and share it online. These men were later sentenced to life imprisonment in the year 2017 after an uproar from women and different civil society organisations.

Women and girls need to be aware of the potential risk of sexual harassment on public transport.  As we call for governments to take charge of ensuring the safety of women and girls in transit, there are a few steps women and girls can take to keep safe. These include, not boarding an empty bus as this increases the risk of abuse and taking note of a bus number plate, fleet number or the name of the bus. It also helps to be aware of one’s surroundings like distinguishing marks on the face of the person seated next to you, the bus conductor, and what they are wearing in case you need to describe them later. In the unfortunate event of abuse, you should report the case to the police station immediately. Prosecution of offenders’ acts as a deterrent to other potential offenders but silence encourages perpetrators of sexual harassment to go on with the same habits.

There is need for gender responsiveness in transport planning, to curb violence against women and girls in public transport. In Kenya, the transport sector is majority run by private business owners. The government needs to make investors in the public transport sector train their staff (drivers and conductors) on gender sensitivity and make them adhere to a strict code of conduct. If public transport workers understand that they will lose their jobs and be prosecuted for sexual harassment, they will be more respectful towards women and girls.

Other mechanisms to ensure the safety of women and girls in transit include installation of CCTV cameras in public commuters and live GPS tracking. Well-structured and well-lit bus stops, train stops and pedestrian walks can also prevent cases of harassment. Displaying street art and graffiti discouraging sexual harassment of women and girls in public transport and public spaces would help reduce cases of harassment. Authorities should publicly display helpline numbers for victims of sexual harassment to call. While planning on transport, ministries should consult with women and civil society organisations working to promote safe public transport for women and girls in order to enhance safety in public spaces.

Women, just like men, have the right of movement and to access public spaces without fear of any form of harassment.

 

[1] Not her real name

Learn more about the author here.