Fed up with the unrest that threatens to throw the country into the kind of violent turmoil that followed the 2007 elections, a group of women in Kenya took matters into their own hands. The Women’s Development Organization spearheaded a weeklong strike in which they called on Kenyan women to withhold sex from their husbands and lovers until they put an end to the political divisions that threaten to destroy the Grand Coalition Government of President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga. The act of conjugal disobedience was straight from the pages of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. The women involved even paid prostitutes not to ply their trade during the seven-day holdout.
If it worked for Lysistrata in her attempt to harness women’s power to end the Peloponnesian Wars, then why can’t it work elsewhere? All hail the power of pum pum!
If only it were that simple.
At first glance, the Kenyan women’s sex strike seems like a clever political ploy. Like trying to force a junkie to kick his habit, the women involved are supposedly forcing their men to make a hard choice—put an end to the violence or kiss the pum pum goodbye for at least a week.
So far, this abrupt coitus interruptus has resulted in one lawsuit filed against the strike’s organizers by a man whose wife participated in the strike, causing him, he claims, physical injuries and mental anguish.
But this high-profile political demonstration, which ended last Friday, did more to threaten the image of woman Kenyan activists than it did to threaten Kenyan men. This is the country that elevated the cause of environmentalist and human rights activist Professor Wangari Maathai, who, in 2004, became the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Does withholding sex really meet the bar Maathai and other women activists set?
Kenya has also been a country in which gang rape has been part of the violence the sex strikers are trying to force their men to end. Add to this politically exacerbated sexual violence, claims of widespread rape of primarily Samburu and Maasai women by British soldiers. Add those who have been raped and sexually assaulted Somali refugees in Kenya, as well as women and men in Kenya’s western Mt. Elgon district near the Ugandan border who have been violated by members of the Sabaot Land Defense Force. Underscoring the widespread link between sex and conflict are the thriving illegal sex trade and its accompanying trafficking of women and girls, the continued refusal to criminalize marital rape, and the sexual abuse, violence, coercion and discrimination that render Kenyan women and girls particularly vulnerable to being infected with HIV/AIDS, and a sex strike seems like a dangerously futile means of coercion.
The proposed sex strike does little to change the way that Kenyan women are viewed and valued in both the public and the private spheres where women are disempowered and largely absent from public positions of power.
According to observations made in 2007 by the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, Kenyan women are underrepresented in “political and public life, in particular in Parliament (where women represent 4.8 percent of elected members of Parliament), government ministries (where women make up 5.8 percent of ministers), the Court of Appeal (where there are no women judges), the diplomatic service (where women make up 27 percent of ambassadors and high commissioners) and in appointed decision-making bodies, in particular at decision-making levels.”
The same committee expressed its concern “about the persistence of adverse cultural norms, practices and traditions as well as patriarchal attitudes and deep-rooted stereotypes regarding the roles, responsibilities and identities of women and men in all spheres of life.” And it contended that these “customs and practices perpetuate discrimination against women, and … are reflected in women’s disadvantageous and unequal status in many areas, including in public life and decision-making, and in marriage and family relations, and the persistence of violence against women.”
The proposed sex strike works within these limited and unequal parameters in an attempt to make women’s views and voices heard, albeit indirectly. While sex-based violence and woman-initiated abstinence are different, they share the fundamental belief that women and sex are legitimate tools of political struggle, civil unrest and war. Now that the strike has concluded, we can only hope the women who organized it will take a look at the efficacy of their tactics and pledge themselves to challenge the status quo in ways that neither reinforce their positions as second-class citizens nor ignore the real injuries suffered by their sisters and brothers.
Lisa A. Crooms is a professor at Howard University’s School of Law.