I grew up in rural Kenya, ignorant of other worlds but educated in my own. I remember instructions doled out to girls, such as “a girl must sit with her legs crossed.” No such instructions were given to the boys in my class. It was a society where females were expected to get married, have many children, and work the land they didn’t own. I was socialized to believe that men were superior to women – but that men also had to be protected from female sexuality, which was very dangerous. As children, we were taught to respect and obey male relatives and elders. Girls were taught to keep our opinions to ourselves.
Our parents sent me and my sisters to all-girls boarding schools to get a good education and to keep us safe from harm. Many of the girls I grew up with became teen mothers far too early. They were judged by the community and blamed for their bad character. Parents hurried to find husbands for their daughters as soon as they had their first period, for fear that they might lose their virginity and bring shame to the family. If a man made a girl pregnant and agreed to pay a dowry and marry her, it would happen – even if the sex act leading to the pregnancy was rape.
In my community, women banded together to protect girls from sexual assault and other crimes. My mother was a leading organizer on these issues and I felt her influence every day. The women created campaigns against schools where teachers were responsible for the abuse of young girls. They created safe spaces through girls' clubs run by female volunteers. This was my community’s way of leaning in. The women fought against becoming victims and resisted the spread of sexual crime – and created an opportunity for some of us to survive the patriarchy.
I am reminded of a favorite quote from Mariama Bâ: “There is a cry everywhere, everywhere in the world; a woman’s cry is being uttered. The cry may be different, but there is still a certain unity.“ In Kenya, the women are working together to make sure our cry is heard.
Musimbi Kanyoro is the President and CEO of the Global Fund For Women.