How Kenya's miniskirt protest inspired an ordinary mum of two to become a fearless defender of human rights

Just like Arab Spring, the entire campaign had been organized online by a group of ordinary women from one of Kenya’s most popular and controversial Facebook groups called Kilimani Mums.

Her life had not shown any signs to the contrarily too, she was a happily married mother of two who filled her days with taking care of her children and running a small shop in Nairobi selling wares.

This would, however, change in 2014 when a video surfaced online of a woman being brutally stripped in broad daylight as a group of men jeered at her with some even joining the action at one of Nairobi’s major bus stations for allegedly dressing indecently.

“What made us to create Hervoice was actually inspired by events of my dress my choice, we came from an online group called Kilimani Mums, the original Kilimani Mum Facebook group”

For the next few days, the hash tag ‘#Mydressmychoice’ trended worldwide as women and rights activists condemned the brutal act

Business Insider Sub Saharan Africa recently had a chat with HerVoice Co-founder Rita Mutheu who was one of the organisers of #Mydressmychoice to get a peek inside the world of activism in Kenya and know what happened after the my dress my choice protest march.

HerVoice is a non-governmental organization which seeks to end Gender Based Violence by influencing behavioural change by instilling values to promote positive masculinity.

Since it was founded in 2015, HerVoice as offered hundreds of victims of violence protection and shelter and work in some of the most violent-prone areas in Kenya to give back women their voice having been inspired by  #mydressmychoice events.

Just like Arab Spring, the entire campaign had been organized online by a group of ordinary women from one of Kenya’s most popular and controversial Facebook groups called Kilimani Mums.

“Someone posted the video of that woman being stripped on our social group and said if you feel this video is making your blood boil and you want to do something about it then come to PAWA 254, so I stopped everything and I went to Pawa 254 carrying my bag full of wares, but upon reaching there only 15 women had turned up out of 28,000, when Boniface Mwangi  (PAWA 254 founder) stood up to speak he told us now you are the organizing committee, and we were like for what? For the demo, I thought we were just writing messages on cartoons and then stand outside parliament picketing”

Boniface Mwangi is an award-winning Kenyan photojournalist and vocal human rights activist. He is the founder of PAWA 254 (Power in Swahili + Kenya country code for national unity) a hub for visual creatives in Kenya and the region.

Not someone to give up easily despite having no previous activism experience, Rita and her group began the hard task of convincing women to come out in large numbers clad in white and purple, the official protest dress code and use ‘their voice’ to advocate for human rights and safe public spaces for women.

“We thought we have a voice, we are passionate about women issues because if we had turned out from a group of 28,000 women then we must be passionate”

The campaign turned out to be so successful that it grabbed international headlines worldwide, after the protest was over, Rita thought her work was done and was ready to hang up her gloves and go back to being a mother and budding entrepreneur but society couldn’t let her.

“After my dress my choice campaign, People kept calling us because it was so successful people didn’t understand we were just mums who just had passion about women issues, but people told us that is what we need you just can’t die like that and so that is how we started HerVoice”

Since then HerVoice has rescued hundreds of women from abusive homes and held several marches and seminars to champion for women right, some of which have grabbed national and international headlines and others have not but all have equally been successful.

“Her voice has been very active, if you follow us on social media because that is where our niche is and that how people reach us you will see we have been very busy, we have partner up with Nairobi County department of Gender and every year we organise marches, one such marches is the #16days of activism and every year it keeps growing, its purpose is to raise issues about human rights.”

However just like my dress my choice split Kenya in the middle and put the whole nation on a moral dilemma, the journey hasn’t been easy, women rights in Kenya still remains a contentious issue and splits men and women because some people still don’t understand that empowering the girl child doesn’t mean stripping the boy child.

“There is nothing wrong with being a feminist, nothing at all, a feminist for me is someone who believes and fight for women rights and there is nothing wrong about that, it is just that society has a way of making feminism look like a bad thing, something to be ashamed of, actually some of the biggest revolutions in the world were led by Women”

HerVoice may have been founded to advocate for women emancipation but it is slowly finding itself also championing for men’s rights as well  because sexual abuse cuts across both genders.

It now aims to create safe public spaces where men, women and children live in peaceful coexistence.

As a feminist especially in a country still culturally evolving and anything not understood is stigmatized and deemed foreign, Rita has been forced to develop a thick skin every day she goes out to give back women their voice.

“I get this a lot, even in my comments on social media whenever I raise an issue about women rights some men would say that is why you are not married, what people don’t know is I have been married forever so I don’t get this association that if I am championing for women rights then I am not marriage material, I think men need to get rid of this narrative, it is annoying”

She is happy though that slowly society is accepting women have equal rights and men are even joining the fight and are preaching positive masculinity but the biggest milestone has to be when sexual offence bill was tabled in parliament.

“stripping was made a sexual offence before it was an assault, like four weeks you are walking out of prison or you are told to slash grass, stripping is now a sexual offence punishable by court sentence of up to 10 years”

A lot however still remains to be done and one such example is Kenya’s rigid Justice System which needs to be overhauled in order to serve justice especially to minors.

“When it comes to rape cases in Kenya, our justice system is still very slow and weak and that can be disheartening at times, our justice system is not friendly to minors and that leads to several cases being thrown out”

Talking to Rita one cannot fail to notice her passion,  her voice rises and falls, her hands goes up and down as she tries to articulate what Society can do to make the world a better place and I am curious to know where she gets her strength from.

“I think my Mom influenced me, she was a very tough woman and the word impossible never existed in her life dictionary, my passion for women rights also comes from within deep in my heart, it is either you have it or you don’t. Since I was a young girl gender-based violence used to make me mad but I didn’t know how to fight for them so when I did this campaign that is when I realized ooh so I am an activist then it dawned on me, I use every ounce of me to fight for the voiceless and when I die I want my children to remember me for how much I fought for women”

When the goings gets tough, Rita draws inspiration from Africa’s first woman president Dr. Ellen Jonson sir leaf whom she hopes to meet one day and Africa’s first woman noble Laureate Wangari Maathai and dashes back to the streets for another bolt of women rights championship.

“You know what people don’t get to see and I usually challenge people to do this, is go to courts and listen to sexual offense cases, you know the papers don’t usually write what the actual statement was, they just write this person was violated by these people but when you go and sit in courts and hear victims giving testimonies of their ordeal trust you me if you had a gun you would remove it and shoot that person, the first time I went to the court I was literally restrained from the seats  at least now I can go to courts and absorb it”

When she is not in the streets fighting for women rights or busy at her shop selling her wares, Rita loves to go out with her friends and let loose to some reggae tunes, the night will be much merrier if the DJ happens to play some Lucky Dube hits.

Mukami Kimathi: Mau Mau Freedom Fighter, a memoir of the widow of freedom fighter Dedan Kimathi is among the many inspiration books Rita enjoys reading after which she later retires to some medical drama but not before devouring some hot Ugali, goat meat and greens, her favourite meal.

‘I am currently watching Good Doctor and I am like give me more episodes, I also enjoyed grey anatomy a great deal”

There are many attributes one can use to describe Rita, fearless, vocal, passionate, to even Mama Kiboko Yao, Rita is however content with being just a mother and a wife paid in love, just like she was before My Dress my choice.

“Lose everything but never lose hope”

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