Thirty-three dangerous women have been unleashed on the streets of Nairobi.
For three weeks in October, they met daily in a training hall in Korogocho, arriving every morning in colourful exercise clothes: workout shorts and nylon jogging pants, cotton T-shirts and baggy sweatshirts.
They kicked off their muddy shoes at the door and settled onto foam mats on the concrete floor.
The women chatted and joked as they limbered up, and then the real action got under way: rolling around on the mats, the class learned how to break knees, crush windpipes, and burst eardrums.
The room echoed with the slapping of fists on punching bags, and screams of what has become their battle cry: “No! No! No!”
These 33 women are the first graduating class of No Means No Worldwide (NMNW, nomeansnoworldwide.org), a US-based organisation that trains vulnerable women and girls to defend themselves against attackers — and how to teach those skills to others.
“In the slums that we are living in, we have robbers, we have thugs, we have thieves. We have even mad people or drug addicts who like to bump up against women, and don’t value women,” says Ms Everlyne Odhiambo, 29, a social worker in Huruma.
“I’m here to learn these skills so I can defend myself when I’m in my field work, and also defend young girls and women.”
Ms Lee Sinclair, 54, is a self-defence trainer and the founder of NMNW.
A slight blonde with big brown eyes, she stands at just over five feet tall. But she knows how to use her petite frame to inflict maximum pain on an attacker – proof that self-defence is about technique, not strength or size.
“I was working in microloans in the slums, and I was hearing these stories of rape,” she says. “More than anything, No Means No Worldwide is an effort – it’s an effort to use prevention in the war on rape, instead of after-care and trauma relief. We really focus on using self-defence techniques that have been developed ‘by women for women’ since the 1970s.”
She says the official rape rate in Nairobi is pegged at 2 per cent, based on police reports and hospital treatment records.
But Ms Sinclair says many rapes in Nairobi go unreported and untreated. Many of the women taking the NMNW course say that families often discourage victims from going to the police, treating it instead as a family issue.
Using anonymous surveys, NMNW research indicates that Nairobi’s rape rate is closer to 24 per cent.
“I was 11 years old and my cousin tried to abuse me. It has even affected my relationship with men [today],” says Ms Elizabeth Muoti, now 22, from Mukuru. “It really took me a long time to accept. If I had known even a little self-defence, I could have got away freely.”
Dressed in stretchy yoga pants and a black tank top proclaiming “NO!”, Ms Sinclair leads the class through a variety of modules during the three-week course. Her first focus is discussing women’s rights and assumptions about gender-based violence.
She says the most important part is to understand exactly what rape is — that it is not about lust or promiscuous women, but instead about violence and control. This idea is illustrated by a poster on the classroom wall in Korogocho, asking: What causes rape?
The answer is a single word: Rapists.
Rape is a focus of the course because many women say they have been (or know) victims of the crime, but the techniques studied in the course are meant to allow women to defend themselves against any kind of threat, such as robbery or domestic violence.
Demographic and health surveys indicate that 43 per cent of Kenyan women aged 15-49 will experience some kind of gender-based violence in their lifetime, according to the Population Council, a US-based research institute.
Ms Sinclair’s second step is to teach the class how to defend themselves both verbally and physically, even against multiple attackers or assailants brandishing weapons.
She says courses in North America tend to focus on physical fighting, but the curriculum she designed puts more emphasis on ending confrontations with verbal skills, such as negotiation, reasoning, or screaming.
“We really focus on verbal, because the research says that 85 per cent of assaults could be stopped using voice,” she says.
However, students are also taught physical techniques to fight their attacker, including discussions on when it is appropriate to become violent.
Ms Sinclair says the key is to match the level of the aggressor’s violence. She mentioned at least one instance in which an elderly woman used self-defence techniques to kill her attacker.
The graduates of the course are now in the process of setting up their own self-defence training courses in five slums in Nairobi.
Working in groups, the women need to find space to teach classes and offices to store their course equipment, such as training manuals and punching bags.
The classes will also be taken into schools, where girls are taught self-defence while boys learn about sexual health.
Aside from assault prevention, Ms Sinclair says NMNW also conducts research.
The organisation is working with Dr Munyae Mulinge, the Dean of the Department of Sociology at the United States International University, Nairobi, to understand how self-defence training affects a community.
Ms Sinclair says that after six months, the initial findings indicate that 52 per cent of the students who study self-defence have used the techniques to stop a sexual assault, and 92 per cent have used the strategies to stop harassment or other attacks.