by Lizzie Kiama
When I started my career as a young woman and a disability rights activist in Kenya, like most young people, I took all the help I could get. A tightly knit community such as the disability community, is often thought to be a safe space, and it was to an extent.
In Kenya, the leadership in the disability community comprises predominantly men as is probably the case with most movements barring a few. The social and cultural predominance of a few groups, ironically enough, is also sustained inside movements trying to dismantle these hegemonies. This means resources like money, social and cultural capital, etc. are not equitably distributed amongst these communities either.
As a young activist, I needed these resources in order to do my work. I needed partnerships with people who have been doing this work for a long time, people who were leaders in the disability rights field.
A few years ago, I was invited to an embassy in Kenya for an event on disability rights. A very prominent national organisation was there to talk about funding opportunities. A disabled man, with whom I was pursuing a work collaboration very seriously, spotted me and sat down next to me. I had a glass of wine in my hand. I remember thinking he was too close for comfort. We were just having a conversation, there was no need to sit so close to me. There was absolutely no need to put his hand on my knee. It was a social event, however, and I didn’t want to rub him the wrong way. I felt like there was nothing I could do at that moment since this was being done so openly. I waited to see if he removed his hand but it stayed there for a bit. There was no way for me to ask him to remove his hand without embarrassing or offending him. I chose to withdraw from the partnership later. I felt like he was trying to tell me that to continue I would have to be open to touches like this.
This isn’t about that one incident; or about that one man. Instances like these have been commonplace. Little touches here and there, being too in your physical space. Nothing you could squarely point out and lay blame. Advances that are thought to barest minimum in terms of harassment; things one could fluidly brush away as ‘just being friendly’ or ‘that’s not what they meant, you must have misunderstood’.
As a young activist, it made sense for me to reach out to the leadership in the community for partnerships. They all started out the same way. They liked my ideas but the process of following up was exhausting. Multiple face to face meetings and a plethora of run-arounds. It always seemed to me that men in the community tended to treat women as ‘flowers’; as less than. Merely there for optics but without a voice. It has always been a power thing in that way and harassment thrives in such an environment.
In Kenya, specifically in the disability community, we have not been very vocal about the sexuality or the sexual rights of persons with disabilities. At least not in the public domain. So when it comes to speaking about sexual harassment, I find that there is no prelude to that conversation. Maybe for this reason, women with disabilities have not had this conversation even amongst themselves. Not having this conversation also feels like violence. In traditional workplaces, in Kenya, similarly , there are a lot of blurred lines. While speaking about sexual rights is not commonplace, sexual innuendo and banter certainly is. Maybe it's something we cultivated culturally, but it becomes hard to make a distinction between the personal and the professional.
Disability spaces in this regard, are similarly set up but for different reasons. Disability is an extremely personal experience, however, you have to lean on people, quite literally, for assistance. It again leaves a lot of room for lines to get blurred. With the addition of power into this mix, there is a lot of dangling bait in the community. To ‘succeed’, you have to keep asking. To be able to get somewhere, to be able to access resources, these men want you to reduce yourself; to succumb to their demands. It’s almost like a rite of passage. If you want to be relevant in the community, you have to look the other way. This was not where I saw myself. I have since pulled out from many partnerships and collaborations. I have found other ways and strategies of achieving my goals.
Lizzie Kiama is the managing trustee of This Ability, an organisation that works on advancing the rights of women and girls with disabilities in Nairobi, Kenya.