08.27.134:45 AM ET

Kenya’s Women Fight Back

An innovative new program teaches Nairobi’s teens and grandmothers to defend themselves from sex attacks in the city’s slums.

“Today, I’m your guide and your security guard!” Mercy Anyong’a cheerfully tells me as we walk through the narrow alleyways and muddy paths of Mukuru Kwa Njenga, one of Nairobi’s largest and most dangerous slums.

Caroline Gitau, a young, vivacious Kenyan woman perpetually in motion, tells me that I should give my camera to Mercy: “She knows the slums well.”

“More than a white American?” I joke meekly while handing it over.

“It is always risky, but we risk it because we have to reach these girls,” Mercy adds.

Mercy and Caroline are two very young, infectiously passionate members of No Means No Worldwide, an NGO that is reducing rape in the slums of Nairobi. Caroline is the program manager and Mercy is a trainer of trainers for the organization, which has taught thousands of teenage girls and elderly shooshoos (“grandmothers” in Kikuyu) a specially designed self-defense program called IMpower.

Thanks to a recently released study that showed astonishing reductions in the incidence of rape among girls who completed the course, the organization has caught the eye of UN Women and UNICEF and is about to greatly expand its reach.

On this overcast Monday, Mukuru’s streets are congested and utterly alive with an electric sense of opportunity. Lanky hawkers carry an unusually eclectic assortment of goods to sell alongside street vendors who peddle chapati and chips or vegetables and groups of men repairing mobile phones and solar panels.

Everyone is selling, striving, and hoping.

We stop at a small community center and quietly slip in as 15 shooshoos between ages 75 and 90 sit in traditional kangas, more than one with a baby wrapped around her back. Elizabeth and Irene, two young, confident NMNW trainers, are in the middle of teaching the women how to spot and react to common ploys used by potential attackers.

They’re role-playing a scenario where a threatening teen forcefully grabs a shooshoo. Suddenly, Elizabeth (the victim) screams “NO!” and pushes Irene away. This simple tactic is, they say, one of the most effective responses; it shocks the attacker and draws attention, which is often enough to scare him off.

Naomi Wanjiru, NMNW’s coordinator for the shooshoo program, ends the session by leading the group in a call-and-response that concludes with all of the women, arms outstretched, powerfully yelling, “NO! NO! NOOOOOO!” at a volume seemingly impossible for so few people.

“Many of these women have been assaulted by young men,” Naomi tells me. “One shooshoo was raped and died last week.”

“That’s why we have this class,” she added, which is also held weekly in Kibera, Korogocho, Kariobangi North, and other Nairobi-area slums. In all, 200 shooshoos are currently being trained.

Unfortunately, the experiences of these shooshoos are shared by women of all ages. According to a 2010 Amnesty International report, “violence against women is endemic in Nairobi’s slums and settlements [and] goes widely unpunished.”

It’s so unsafe for women to go to the pit latrines at night that they’re often forced to use “flying toilets”—plastic bags that are hurled out the window once they are used.

Violence against women is more common inside the home than outside. A recently released report from the World Health Organization concluded that more than one third of African women will experience physical or sexual intimate-partner violence over the course of their lives.

Often, it’s early in life. According to the report, “the prevalence of exposure to violence is already high among young women aged 15–19 years, suggesting that violence commonly starts early in women’s relationships.”

‘I Knew I Wasn’t Going Home and Living the Life I Had Before’

No Means No Worldwide was founded in 2006 by Lee Sinclair, an American who spent time in Nairobi’s slums with her husband, Dr. Jake Sinclair, the founder of Ujamaa (“familyhood” in Kiswahili), a microenterprise organization that recently merged with No Means No Worldwide.

While speaking with people as part of a microloan program, her translator kept showing her areas where grandmothers were raped and left for dead.

“That was it for me,” she explained in an interview. “It was just this moment where I knew that I wasn’t going home and living the life I had before that.”

Today, the organization’s main focus is teenage girls and, increasingly, teenage boys.

Its flagship self-defense program, IMpower, is aimed at young girls ages 10 to 19. For 2 hours each week for 6 weeks, NMNW trainers will teach a group of 50 to 60 young girls verbal and physical self-defense techniques to help them prevent—or escape from—dangerous situations.

In just over two years, 12,000 girls have been taught the program. Until recently, though, “we had more hope than facts,” Caroline told me. “Now we know what we’re doing works.”

She’s referring to a recently released study in the Journal of Adolescent Health that showed that the program had an astounding 63 percent reduction in the incidence of rape for girls when compared with a control group—from 24.6 percent to 9.2 percent.

Dr. Neville Golden, an author of the study, is the chief of adolescent medicine and a professor of pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine. He discussed the results in an interview. “This is really an intervention that empowered girls to say no,” he told me. “It wasn’t a violent intervention program. Most of the girls used verbal skills to thwart an attack.”

The program, which cost $1.75 per trainee, also seemed to convince young girls that it was OK to report a rape. Before, only 56 percent of those who had been raped told someone.

After, 97 percent did.

Golden said that this population-based study was just the beginning. “This is a pilot project to see if there is an effect, and there’s a dramatic effect,” he said. “Now one has to do a more rigorous study, which would be a randomized controlled trial.”

Future studies will look at both girls and boys. “What we anticipate is that the combination of both an intervention with girls and an intervention with boys ultimately will have a very powerful effect on reducing the incidence of sexual assault,” he noted.

The study caught the attention of UN Women, a group created to empower women and promote gender equality. Soon it will work with NMNW to adapt IMpower for refugee camps and post-conflict areas—hotbeds of sexual assault and rape. UNICEF is another soon-to-be partner, according to Sinclair. “We have some soccer stars, and they’re going to start doing some boys programming, using these guys as facilitators,” she said.

“It’s just the beginning,” Sinclair was quick to point out. These organizations are “in a lot of places in the world where this type of work needs to happen.”

A Moment of Truth for Teenage Boys

As Golden insinuated, an intervention for boys is a critical component of any program to reduce rape. Recognizing this, NMNW started a program called Your Moment of Truth, which aims to change the patriarchal views boys often grow up with in Kenya.

Tony Njangiru, a thin 20-something dressed impeccably in jeans and a cardigan sweater, described the program to me. He said it focuses on helping boys “reawaken their courage” and “finding the courage to intervene” in situations where a girl or woman may be at risk.

Soon-to-be-published data show that Your Moment of Truth has a profound effect on how the boys view girls and women, according to Benjamin Mboya, NMNW’s research coordinator. “[We] haven’t seen any deterioration ... The boys’ change in attitude really sticks,” he said.

Saying No

Mercy and I collect a few of her colleagues and hit the streets of Kariobangi North for a quick walk to the afternoon’s IMpower class.

This is Mercy’s neighborhood—she’s raising a son here, near the home where she grew up. It’s a study in contrasts: remembrance and pain and normalcy and hope, all at once.

The building “where much of the post-election violence occurred” in 2008, according to Mercy, is next to the muddy path children are barreling down with a reckless abandon only they seem to be able to conjure, while their mothers sew nearby on vintage Singer machines. A skeletal stray dog scavenges through a large garbage pile next to an improvised movie theater where residents can catch a film or a football match.

Our destination is the Kariobangi Outreach Children’s Primary School, where 60 young girls are in the middle of their weekly IMpower class. We slip in just as Maureen and Joyce, two 20-something trainers, are lining up the girls—all dressed identically in long checkered skirts and maroon sweaters—in rows facing each other.

Today’s lesson is on how to evade an attacker choking from behind. Maureen and Joyce act it out: Joyce, under attack, shrugs her shoulders to make her neck smaller and brings her arms up to knock Maureen’s hands off her. She turns around and aims her index and middle finger at Maureen’s eyes, screaming “No!” as she thrusts them toward Maureen.

The rows of young girls try the technique on one another, sometimes replacing an eye jab with a pretend assault on one of the other three vulnerable points: the throat, the groin, and the knees.

After the trainers teach strategies for fending off multiple attackers (“Number four: fight one person at a time. Number six: fight dirty—no rules”), Mercy ends the session with the same call-and-response the shooshoos yelled earlier:

I’ve got my spirit! I’ve got my spirit!

I can defend myself! I can defend myself!

I am beautiful! I am beautiful!

I’m worth defending! I’m worth defending!

I say No! I say No!

I say No! I say No!

I say Nooooo! Nooooo!