For Some Kenyan Women, Toilet Use Means Sexual Violence

Trigger Warning for discussion/descriptions of sexual violence.

Last week, Amnesty International released a report about how women in some areas of Nairobi, Kenya are afraid to leave their homes at night to use the bathroom, due to the persistent threat of sexual violence. The report, Insecurity and indignity: Women’s experiences in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya (pdf), is 64 pages long, and I haven’t been able to do more than skim it. This shortened version, Risking Rape to Reach a Toilet: The Experiences of Women in Nairobi, Kenya (pdf), is however only 12 pages, highly readable, and includes many direct quotes from Kenyan women themselves.

The shortage of toilets (including latrines) and places to wash in the slums exacerbates women’s insecurity and heightens the risk of gender-based violence.

Most slum residents use shared pit latrines, with as many as 50 to 150 people sharing one pit latrine. It can take 10 minutes to walk from the user’s home to the toilet, a dangerous journey for women, particularly at night. As a result, many are forced to resort to “flying toilets” – disposing of human waste by throwing it into the open in a plastic bag.

There are also some community toilets in slums for public use. However, these usually charge a fee. At about 5 Kenya shillings (US$ 0.064) per visit, the fees are unaffordable for many women, particularly those with children. These toilets are also closed at certain times, especially at night. Many close at 8pm.

Many women have to wash in their oneroom houses, despite the lack of privacy. For some, latrines are the only private place to wash while for others, there might be a small bathroom adjacent to the latrines.

These are shared by tens of households and are often unhygienic. The inaccessibility of toilets and bathrooms seriously compromises women’s right to privacy. Poor sanitary conditions also result in poor health and escalating health care bills for families. Less well-documented is the impact of the lack of toilets and bathrooms on women’s security.

Particularly after dark, the lack of toilets and bathrooms near their homes puts women at great risk of violence, including rape. Most don’t dare leave their homes because of the dangers lurking on the way.

Many women have suffered rape and other forms of violence as a result of attempting to walk to a toilet or latrine some distance from their home.

To avoid these dangers, women sometimes wash or use latrines in groups or ask male family members to accompany them at night. However, this does not alter the fact that facilities are inadequate and inaccessible. And many single women who are heads of households cannot call upon male family members. Using toilet facilities at night is simply not an option for most women interviewed by Amnesty International.

The report then goes on to discuss the necessity of creating sanitation services in these areas, and calls for an increase in police presence. Again, you really should go read the whole thing.

Regarding the framing of the issue, on the one hand I certainly commend Amnesty International’s willingness to get involved in an issue as unglamorous as adequate toilet facilities. It doesn’t have the immediate sense of urgency as governmental violence, the persecution of activists, or the execution of political prisoners. People are rather squeamish when it comes to talking about human waste. It doesn’t seem to be an issue that will attract much excited, dedicated attention at all, but it is one that is vital all the same. Sanitary facilities are necessary both as a matter of public health and as a stopgap method of addressing the violence that women regularly face if they attempt to use the toilet at night.

But addressing rape by preventing the specific circumstances in which it occurs is exactly just that — a band-aid, not a solution. It is absolutely important to talk about the violence that women face in these particular circumstances, and to not ignore it as a part of the conversation. But when talking about gender-based violence, it’s always important to address the roots, no matter what the specific context. Men are not raping women because women don’t have a safe and private place to use the bathroom — they’re raping women because they’re rapists, and this lack of security and privacy provides ample opportunity to attack a vulnerability.

As I similarity addressed previously with regards to Haiti, this isn’t an issue of what Kenyan men do when they lack proper toilet access — it’s an issue of what rapists do when they are presented with vulnerable women. Rapists always attack vulnerability, wherever they see it. Creating vulnerability where it need not be does indeed assist rapists, but humanely and properly removing obvious vulnerabilities doesn’t stop rape on its own. Some rapists will undoubtedly decide that it’s not worth the risk to rape, but others will just find a new vulnerability.

And as I addressed recently with regards to the Congo, this is not a case of “Kenyan culture” creating an ideal setting for rape. Irrefutably, Kenya does have a rape culture. But while certainly possessing its own intricacies as any rape culture does, the presence of a rape culture is not unique or specific either to Kenya as a place or the people who live there. Rape culture is virtually everywhere. In some places it just seems more severe, because overwhelming oppressive forces have allowed it to thrive.

So, rapists exploit vulnerability to commit their crimes. Indeed, here, rapists are also engaging in a form of terrorism. Women aren’t just faced with an ever-present threat of rape — terrorizing in its own right — they have been given so much reason to be afraid that they literally cannot leave their homes at night. And when women are terrorized to the point that they cannot even use the bathroom, they are necessarily subjected even further to risk of disease through being forced to engage in unsanitary practice.

But vulnerability here is created through a variety of means, including poverty, a lack of stability, a failure to provide adequate sanitation, entrenched misogyny, and so on. This is important to keep in mind, because proper sanitation — again, while absolutely necessary — is not going to stop sexual violence alone. As already stated, rapists will just find different opportunities for rape. Indeed, the report itself notes, while as far as I can tell failing to connect the two, that most violence women face in Kenya is within the home, usually from husbands, though also from fathers, brothers, etc. Regardless of whether safe, clean toilets are available, that violence is going to continue unless other further steps are taken.

I also really dislike Amnesty International’s insistence on placing the obligation to find solutions entirely at the feet of the Kenyan government. Certainly, a government has an obligation to its people, especially those who are most vulnerable, and the claims against the government in this case are really disturbing. But in countries that have this level of poverty and areas with such a lack of infrastructure, there’s usually a lot more going on than lazy bureaucrats. I know next to nothing about Kenyan history. I’m not going to pretend otherwise, and I strongly encourage anyone who does know what they’re talking about to get involved in the comments. But even a quick skim of Wikipedia tells me that Kenya is a country that was brutally colonized. One can only assume that a mere 50 years after colonization officially ended, the country is severely impacted by the ongoing effects of that colonization, and this poverty is a part of that legacy. I doubt that the Kenyan government is the only one with the responsibility here, because from what I know about colonization in general, I’m entirely sure that they’re not the ones who created the problem.

Of course, that said, I also don’t have a comprehensive solution myself, nor do I think it’s the job of those who colonized Kenya to engage in the “benign” colonization of storming in, taking over, and attempting to “solve” all of the problems there as though Kenyans do not know what is best for themselves. I do know that access to safe, clean toilets is a necessary part of the solution, but only a part. I also know that local women need support for the work that they’re already doing, however they would like it. And I know that the best solutions come from within communities, from people who best know how to address their own needs, and through carefully listening to those needs and asking how they can be best met. I say that a lot more of that and a lot less “bootstrapping” type language would be a good place to start.

0 thoughts on “For Some Kenyan Women, Toilet Use Means Sexual Violence

  1. Lexi

    It’s not just in Kenya…it’s in the US armed forces too. One of my family members is stationed in Iraq, and describes things that are very similar — female soldiers either traveling in groups at night to use the facilities, because they’re not safe from their fellow soldiers if they go alone. Some of the women use a different tactic — not drinking anything after a certain hour so they won’t have to use the bathroom after dark.

    No wonder so many (male) military folks are afraid of letting gays serve in the armed forces — they’re probably afraid they’ll be targets of rape by their own side, just like the female soldiers are.

  2. wiggles

    Lexi – yeah. That’s where misogyny and homophobia collide; misogynist and homophobic (where there’s one, there’s the other; they’re like peas and carrots) men are afraid gay men view them the way they view women – As conquests whose consent and humanity means nothing.


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