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Activists hand a lifeline to sexual violence victims

Saturday December 07 2019
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Anti-gender-based violence campaigner Sylvia Maru talks about her professional challenges and victories at her LCVT Health office in Hurlingham, Nairobi, on December 6, 2019. PHOTO | COURTESY

By MORAA OBIRIA

A gang member randomly picks a girl and tells her: “You are mine."

She has no way of resisting. She is forced to submit to the sexual advances of the hooligan.

She will not report this to the police because it will expose her to more danger. She has nowhere to go.

That is the story of girls in Korogocho and Kibera slums in Nairobi, as explained by Ms Sylvia Maru, a gender-based violence campaigner working with LCVT Health.

Ms Maru, 28, has for the past six years been interacting with girls and women who have been converted into sex objects by powerful gangs in these slums.

HEALTH RISKS

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So powerful are they that it is considered a privilege for the girls and women to be identified with them as it entitles them to some form of security, that is, they cannot be seduced by other men.

“It breaks my heart,” says Ms Maru during the interview on Friday.

“What breaks my heart even more is the fact that the girl is among the many girls the gangster sleeps with, and she has no power to use a contraceptive … the risk of HIV infection is simply not a question to ask.”

She is currently engaged in implementing a DREAMS project in Kibera which aims at enabling more than 50,000 girls and women to become economically empowered to make informed choices.

DREAMS stands for Determined, Resilient, Empowered, AIDS-free, Mentored, and Safe women.

She says she makes a deliberate effort to engage the criminals despite their threats to her to stop educating “their women” on their rights, safe sex and how to protect themselves from sexual violence.

“The few whose hearts have changed have become our advocates. I pray that God touches all of them that they consider girls and women as human beings, not as sex objects,” she observes.

EMPOWERMENT

To mentor girls and women, Ms Maru is capitalising on an asset building strategy which focuses on means of eliminating webs trapping them into sex-for-money — shelter and clothes.

Under the strategy, the girls and women are organised into cohorts of 100, upon which they are assigned a mentor who meets them once a week. Each meeting constitutes of 15-20 of them.

They are taken through ways of protecting themselves from sexual violence, where to get help, where to access HIV testing and drugs or receive counselling.

They are also trained on life and business management skills. “The girls and women now appreciate and love themselves. Some make handbags for sale.

Others have formed table banking groups. They now have money of their own and dismiss men who seduce them with promises of economic incentives,” says Ms Maru.

LISTENING EAR

She says she has mentored girls between the ages of nine and 24.

Her appeal is to mothers, especially those in second marriages or raising girls with stepfathers, to prioritise their daughters and pay attention to their distress whenever they open up.

“Mothers, you are the safe spaces for your girls. Listen and take action when they confide in you of sexual abuse,” appeals Ms Maru.

Mr Richard Muhindu, 28, an anti-GBV campaigner in Korogocho, says drugs and crime are a major impediment to saving girls and women from sexual violence in the informal settlement.

In order to address the problem, Mr Muhindu says he has engaged the nine to 24 year-old girls and boys through tailored programmes that address sexual violence, teen pregnancies and HIV infections, among others.

“For instance, for the 18-24 year-olds, I use a module called Sugar, which is anchored on the film Sugar … it portrays drugs, sex and money. In fact, the film pulls the gangsters and it becomes easier to speak to them through the eyes of the film,” said Mr Muhindu.

Two years ago, Mr Muhindu was scared of doing the anti-GBV campaigns in the slums because of threats from the gangs.

“The gangsters have to become your allies in the fight against GBV and prevention of spread of HIV. They are the ones who violate these girls. You will fail if you do not involve them,” he says.

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