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Fighting domestic violence in Kenya

Diana Wanyonyi
May 30, 2018

In Kenya, gender-based and societal violence is on the rise. To tackle the problem, authorities are rolling out taekwondo programs in primary schools.

Kenia Kenia Taekwando-Training in Mombasa
Image: DW/D. Wanyonyi

The 77 Percent: Taekwondo as self defense

It's 2 p.m. and a group of about 200 children between eight and 15 years are in Likoni Social Hall practicing taekwondo. This could be a sports class in any city in the world, but these youngsters are not just learning a new sport, they are taking part in a special program to tackle the spread of gender-based violence on the Kenyan coast.

The subject of domestic violence is normally imagined as something which happens at home and within families; but gender-based violence can happen anywhere to anyone and is not just violence between a husband and wife. Young women and children tend to be more at risk but anyone who lacks power can suffer from gender-based violence and it can happen anywhere in society. In the last few years, the Kenyan authorities have been documenting a rise in cases of gender-based violence on the Kenyan coast. They are now looking at ways of tackling the problem. In Kenya's second city, Mombasa, a community-based organization has rolled out a program to train young girls and boys in taekwondo to provide self-defense and stop them becoming rape victims or the subject of violence.

Increasing in confidence

The children lift their legs and push out their fists in controlled movements, moving across the room slowly and shouting words in a call-and-response with their instructor. The program was established by a group of young people, in response to increasing reports of gangs attacking, raping and sodomising young people across the city. Miriam Muthoni joined the class four years ago in the hope that she could learn to defend herself against any would-be attacker.
"I joined because I wanted to learn self-defense so that I could fight back against groups of boys if they try and rape me. Now I can protect myself by fighting. I have gained confidence because if I were to be attacked I could use the skills that we have been taught and I hope they would protect me."

Clad in a white robe with a black belt wrapped around his waist, Daniel Owino is 11 years of age. He credits the course with improving his confidence and boosting his health.

A group of bozs and girls learn taekwando in Mombasa county in coastal Kenya
Taekwondo can help build children's confidence and give them the skills to stand up to would-be attackers.Image: DW/D. Wanyonyi

"I have always been interested in sports and that was the initial reason I wanted to join. I hoped it would improve my discipline. I used to be very sickly, when I was little, and I fainted frequently. But since I joined taekwondo I am doing well," he says. 

Reducing gender-based violence

When the group began in 2012 they had just 50 children, remembers the chairperson and co-founder Chrispine Mwadime. Training helps children build character and can particularly empower young women, who are especially prone to attacks, Mwadime tells DW:

"We really encourage everyone to take up a martial art like taekwondo. It is not just about exercise, it gives children skills and confidence and that is what can save them sometimes. We train them to flee a difficult situation and how they can really harm a person who is threatening them."
The association now has over 400 children who attend classes and they do outreach programmes in over 30 primary schools across the county. Mwadime claims that the incidence of attacks has reduced since more children are equipped to defend themselves. The leaders of Mombasa county have now asked them to roll out their program even further.

"We have educated the community through social media and seminars about the importance of martial arts. We have seen a real reduction of violent attacks in the Majengo area. We are hopeful that once this is rolled out in all schools there will be no more incidences of violence in this area," says Mwadime.

Building skills for the future

An instructor teaches children of all ages taekwondo in a town hall
Organizers claim that the classes have reduced incidents of violence in the areaImage: DW/D. Wanyonyi

Jane Wanjiku is the mother of Miriam Muthoni. She has come here to Likoni Social Hall to follow the progress of her daughter who is among the best performers in martial arts in the group. She is amazed at her daughter's moves and tactics, she describes how Muthoni used to be shy and silent at home. And this worried her mother when she saw what awaited her in the outside world. Jane Wanjiku thought that taekwando would help ensure her daughter's safety now and in to the future. But she has faced some resistance from other parents who are surprised that she would encourage her daughter to indulge in what some might think is a combat sport not suited to women. 

"When taekwondo was introduced in her school, she joined it. As a parent, I allowed her to do that because I will not always be able to walk with her. Now she is in class eight and they leave school at 8 p.m. so the tactics will help her to fight anybody who might want to attack her," Wanjiku says. "When I tell people that my daughter is learning martial arts, they ask, 'who will marry her?' I tell them that this will not stop her marrying a man. This is not about teaching her to fight her husband, but it is helping her stand up for herself wherever she might be and that's what I want her to learn."

A picture of children learning taekwando in Kenya taken from the back of the clas room
'This is not about fighting her husband but it will allow her to stand up for herself' says Jane Wanjiku, mother of one of the participantsImage: DW/D. Wanyonyi