NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — In a Nairobi slum named Korogocho, which means “crowded shoulder to shoulder” in Swahili, a group of women navigate raw sewage and sharp metal edges of roofing to attend a training they hope might save their lives.
Sexual assault can happen to anyone, and the women are determined to fight back. Aged 60 to well over 90, they meet every Thursday afternoon to practice taekwondo.
Class is serious. Late arrivals are ordered to do sit-ups and jumping jacks as punishment, said the group’s chairwoman and lead trainer, Jane Waithageni Kimaru.
The slum is home to many widows and single mothers. Some have felt especially vulnerable during the COVID-19 pandemic, as Kenyan authorities have reported that cases of sexual violence have risen. The health ministry said it has received reports of at least 5,000 such cases across the country, often in poor areas. Officials say in many cases the perpetrators are close to the victims and do not believe the abuse is a crime.
“One day I was attacked by a well-known person who wanted to rape me without protection and I didn’t have good skills to defend myself, I only screamed and the perpetrator ran away,” said one of the women in training, Esther Wambui Mureithi, 72. “If I had good training like now, I could have stabbed his eyes with my fingers and kicked him in his private parts and reported him to a nearby police station.”
Ann Waithera, 76, said she believed that older women have become targets for rape because of the belief that they don’t have HIV. She said she has been assaulted many times. “That made me join this group, which has really helped me to learn how to defend myself and not to fear anyone who attacks me,” she said. “Now I know the skills to shout loudly, ‘No! No! No!’”