Why Kenyan Journalists Must Tell Stories of Sexual Abuse Better

Guest Writer
2 April ,2019

by Muturi Njeri

I recently read a story in the Daily Nation that infuriated and disappointed me. This is not news though—more like the norm for any reader of the Kenyan newspaper. What was uniquely heart-breaking about this story was the way it was reported. The story by Mohamed Ahmed entitled Girl gives baby away hoping to be accepted by family is about Mary (not her real name), a 16-year-old girl from Vihiga County, who was sexually abused and impregnated by her stepfather in April last year. It is painful to read about how Mary has been treated by the two major institutions primarily meant to protect her: her government and her family. Her government arrested and locked her up for three days and her family—her grandmother—sent her hundreds of miles away from home to an aunt in Mombasa as banishment (and presumably punishment) after abuse by another member of the family. However, doubly frustrating is how tone-deaf Ahmed’s article is in reporting on Mary’s experience to the extent that it appears to justify her sexual abuse and subsequent mistreatment, teetering dangerously on the realm of victim-blaming. Ahmed writes:

According to the Luhya traditions, incest is a taboo and culprits are banished. The Class Six pupil was defiled on April 10, 2018.

“My (step) father turned on me as he was taking me to my grandmother’s home at around 11pm. He threatened to kill me if I revealed to anyone that he had defiled me,” said Mary.

Why should we be worried about this kind of reporting? Steve Jobs famously said, “the most powerful person in the world is the storyteller. The storyteller sets the vision, values and agenda of an entire generation that is to come.” Storytellers—journalists, essayists, novelists, photographers, preachers, filmmakers, historians—wield this power, primarily, by framing the narratives they tell their audiences about their subjects. At the core of framing lies the decisions that the storyteller makes on what to include and what to leave out of the story. A photographer, for example, frames a shot by selecting—and accentuating—a few elements in her environment in her composition and cropping out everything else. However, framing isn’t just about what is told—and not told; it is also about how the storyteller defines (implicitly or explicitly) the problem in a story, the causes of the problem, the characters in the story as well as possible remedies to the problem. No matter how much a storyteller claims to be neutral, the mere fact that they frame the narrative means that they make conscious and subjective decisions that ultimately influence the audience’s perception of the problem and characters in the story. Unfortunately, going by the way Ahmed (and his editors) frame the narrative in their article on Mary, they seem unaware of this power—and that is assuming the best of intentions on their part.

Take, for instance, the way the article focusses on Mary, the victim, and not her stepfather, the perpetrator. There is a single line in the whole article talking about what happened to the stepfather: he fled to Nairobi. While the article tells us about Mary’s arrest, banishment, delivery and desire to return to school, there is no mention of any attempts to bring the stepfather to justice—or even calls for such attempts. This focus on the object—in a grammatical sense—of the violation draws attention away from the subject—the doer. This functions like a sentence written in the passive voice (Jane was beaten), instead of the active voice (Anna beat Jane). In the first sentence, the best the reader can do is pity Jane, but in the second one, they can clearly see who beat her (Anna)—and act to fix that. By omitting—or de-emphasizing—the subjects (perpetrators), stories like Ahmed’s partly absolve them by cloaking them in invisibility. Before you know it, as if by magic, there are thousands of victims and zero perpetrators.

Ahmed also chooses to frame the narrative primarily as a case of ‘incest’, ‘a taboo’ among the Luhya. This choice is disappointing because, in her quotes, Mary states that her stepfather “turned on her at 11 pm” and threatened to kill her if she told anyone about it. By interpreting this as ‘incest’, Ahmed implies that Mary is one of the “culprits” who ought to be punished, yet it is clear she had no choice in the matter. Also, at 16, she is a child—per the Kenyan constitution—and has no power to consent to any sexual act with an adult. Just a few days later, Daily Nation tweeted about teachers who had been sacked over “love affairs” with students. Clearly, these are cases of sexual abuse—often coupled with emotional violence like the death threat in Mary’s case.  Framing it as ‘incest’ or “love affairs” takes away the emotional punch that framing it as sexual abuse of minors would have had on readers. Incest and love affairs may be wrong, but they do not scream injustice like child rape does.

Framing it as ‘incest’ also influences the viable solutions. ‘Incest’ means the problem can be fixed by banishment—for both the victim and the perpetrator. As such, the best possible outcome for Mary is re-acceptance by her family (not safety from her abusive stepfather or counselling to deal with her trauma or support to catch up with the school-year she missed). Framing it as a case of sexual abuse would call for the prosecution of the stepfather as punishment and for Mary’s protection. It would also mean questioning the logic used in punishing Mary instead of caring for her—and the impact this has on her rights to safety, education and development both as a Kenyan citizen and as a human being. In a country where, according to World Vision, some 150,000 children are sexually abused every year, one cannot help but wonder if attitudes like these are partly to blame. Some might argue that questioning this cultural framing would negatively portray the Luhya culture. Far from it: there are plenty of wonderful things about Luhya culture and traditions. But, surely, protecting elements of culture that shield sexual predators and hurt children’s lives in 2019 is unconscionable, even for the staunchest cultural relativist.

As storytellers—and therefore setters of our society’s values and visions—Kenyan journalists must do better than this. As their audiences, we must demand better from them too. Especially now, in the #MeToo era, when numerous people are standing up to sexual abuse and misogyny around the world. It is not enough to report stories like these “neutrally” —because that, at best, is a myth, and at worst, an affirmation of cycles of abuse. Furthermore, this is not a war for just women to wage, especially regarding the abuse of children. This is a moral and human issue with social, political and economic implications for our country. If we cannot have empathy for our own children, then what kind of society are we living in? What do we even care about then? What kind of people are we? I know some will be quick to point out that both Ahmed and I are male—and therefore should not be involved in this conversation. Still, I believe with the right attitudes and systems, anyone can contribute to ending sexual abuse and supporting survivors (a significant proportion of whom are male). I am inspired by Ronan Farrow, a 31-year-old, male, Pulitzer-award winning journalist for The New Yorker, whose reporting on the stories of survivors of abuse by influential men like Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby has shown that no one is too powerful to avoid consequences for their actions. If we are to tackle the epidemic of sexual abuse in Kenya, our storytellers must be at the frontlines. We must set the vision for a nation that loves its people—more so its children—and that will do anything to protect them from those who (seek to) harm them.

Muturi Njeri is currently pursuing his MSc in Africa and International Development at the University of Edinburgh. He’s a MasterCard Foundation Scholar and an alumnus of the African Leadership Academy and Colgate University. He writes on https://muturiwanjeri.com/

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