Nearly 1,000 people have taken to the streets of Nairobi to protest against vicious public attacks on women that appear to be on the rise in sub-Saharan Africa.
Women were stripped naked and assaulted for wearing miniskirts or other clothing perceived to be immodest in attacks across Kenya, South Africa, Malawi and Zimbabwe.
Grainy videos of two attacks in the Kenyan cities of Mombasa and Nairobi, taken on mobile phones and circulated via social media, appeared to show mobs of men surrounding the women, wresting off their clothes and kicking them in their genital area.
In one attack at a bus stop in central Nairobi, a young woman wearing a black miniskirt and a pink singlet had her clothes torn off as she tried to hide her nudity with her hands.
The men attacking her said her clothes were indecent, but others said she refused to respond to cat calls and come-ons.
The video helped spark the Nairobi protest, said criminal lawyer Lilian Manegene who helped to organise the march.
“When I saw that video, I was so annoyed, I cried,” she said.
“They have come to the limelight. Before, they were happening but it was never reported, it was never brought to the attention of anybody.
“Of late … the social media has made it easy to know who is getting attacked where.”
Sex crimes rarely prosecuted in Kenya
Another organiser said she was aware of 10 separate attacks across Kenya.
“Violence affects women, men, boys and girls, and if left to continue gaining currency, will deny us healthy relationships,” organiser Ruth Knaust told Capital FM radio.
The Nairobi attack, which happened in broad daylight on a busy street last week, caused outrage in the cosmopolitan capital.
The crowd waved banners and chanted “My Dress, My Choice” and marched across central Nairobi to the site of the attack.
“We dress for ourselves, not for the men. We dress to feel good – it’s a girlish thing,” said Margaret Muchori, who joined the protest because she too had been harassed.
“This is our way of saying, ‘it’s my body and I can dress it any way I see fit’.”
Kenyan deputy president William Ruto called the bus stop attack barbaric, and police inspector-general David Kimaiyo appealed to the victim to come forward, local media reported.
The march, which was mostly made up of women, was an unusual public display of support for women’s rights in Kenya, where sex crimes are rarely prosecuted.
Some men also took part in the protest that brought city centre traffic to a standstill.
“I think the reason this sparked such outrage is it was so graphic and everyone who watched it felt violated,” male artist and activist Boniface Mwangi, who donned a short dress for the march, said.
“It could have been my wife, my daughter, my mother.”
But other men watching the protest believed the treatment of the woman in the video was appropriate considering her dress.
“They are not wearing decently, you know? We want them to be wearing decently. If they are not going to do that, then … we will still do it,” said one protester who refused to be named.
Another unnamed protester added “Like Uganda”, in reference to similar incidents in the neighbouring country which passed an anti-pornography law almost a year ago that was widely seen as banning short skirts.
Others have taken to Twitter to defend the men using the hashtag #NudityIsNotMyChoice.
“An African woman should be decent,” said James Macharia, a 26-year-old student who stood watching the rally with a group of other men.
“They are provoking us and I think we should put in place laws to curb that.”