Nairobi, Kenya is not designed with girls’ safety in mind. Walking home from school or work through unlit streets, girls and young women face regular harassment, abuse and intimidation. If they opt to use public transportation, they face the same risks.
And like the rest of the world, inequality in the city is worsening because of COVID-19.
“The suffering is real, and this has played a major role in escalating the cases of gender-based violence and crime,” says boda boda rider, Cosmas.
Cosmas is a father of two girls and a motorcycle taxi driver from Mathare, an informal slum settlement in Nairobi. He’s seen for himself how girls and young women are treated when they use public transportation.
“It is not safe out here for many girls,” he says. “Many young men are idle and are a threat to their safety.”
Girls and women depend on taxis and buses sometimes more so than men, but when they use those services, they know that their safety is not guaranteed. This common sexual violence in public spaces leaves girls without their dignity or their right to participate in society.
“In Nairobi, bus conductors and motorbike riders insult girls when they’re passing or physically or sexually harass them,” says Georgina, a Youth Advocate with Plan International Kenya.
Araffa, a young mother campaigning for girls in Nairobi, says, “The biggest problem in my community is gender-based violence. Many girls are oppressed, beaten and forced to have sex with their husbands. Women are being disgraced. They’re not given the same chances as men.”
But Cosmas refuses to participate in the violence. He is one of many taxi drivers who has received training from Plan International’s Safer Cities program. The training aims to empower girls, boys, young women and men to affect the change they want to see in their communities, campaign for gender equality, promote girls’ safety, and prevent and report harassment and assault.
Now, Cosmas is ensuring that girls are aware of all the risks when using public transportation, especially since violence is escalating during the COVID-19 crisis.
“I take it upon myself to advise the girls I interact with on how to best stay safe during this time and which routes they should avoid,” he says. “I place the safety of girls first, before money.”
Over 1,700 transportation workers in Kenya, along with Cosmas, are now trained in protecting girls from sexual harassment, assault and abuse.
For many families living in informal settlements like Cosmas, COVID-19 has deprived them of an income. Business has been slow for Cosmas, but he’s been able to make ends meet and keep his daughters fed. However, gaining access to basic resources like water remains difficult.
“Mathare has lacked water for a long period of time,” he says. “We have to go the extra mile to ensure that we get this very basic commodity for us to wash our hands and observe the hygiene standards.”
Many families in Nairobi and across the world aren’t able to afford to feed their children, let alone face masks or hand sanitizer. COVID-19 is putting extreme stress on families, and girls often face the burden of it. Girls need your help to stay protected. Communities need your support to keep girls safe. More public transportation workers like Cosmas can become allies for girls, with you.