Women take part in a protest along a main street in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi November 17, 2014. The demonstrators were demanding justice for a woman who was attacked and stripped in Nairobi by men who claimed that she was dressed indecently.

© 2014 Reuters

“We women must respect ourselves. You cannot stay with a man drinking until 3 a.m.” This was the response from Mary Wambui, a member of parliament, to recent protests by female legislators and women’s rights activists over accusations that Gideon Mwiti, another parliament member, repeatedly raped a woman in his Nairobi office, severely beat her, and forced her to take an HIV test.

Female legislators also recently protested what they say is rampant sexual harassment of women members and staff in parliament. Wambui went on to say that as a long-serving politician, she had never been sexually harassed because she kept a respectful distance from her male colleagues.

It is troubling that a high-level leader in a country with endemic violence against women peddles the notion that women are to blame for sexual violence. According to the 2008-2009 Kenya Demographic and Health Survey, close to 40 percent of women ages 15 to 49 have experienced physical violence, and one in five has experienced sexual violence.

Unfortunately, Wambui’s assertions reflect a widespread attitude toward violence against women in Kenya. Both women and men are socialized to believe that there are justifications for raping or beating women. In the same survey, 53 percent of women and 44 percent of men agreed that a man should beat his wife if she burns the food, argues with him, goes out without telling him, neglects the children, or refuses sexual relations.

In November, a mob of men assaulted and stripped a woman in Nairobi for wearing a mini-skirt. They claimed she was “tempting” them by the way she was dressed. The incident also sparked protests by female legislators and activists, and the #MyDressMyChoice campaign on Twitter. There have been many other such incidents.  

Human Rights Watch and other organizations have documented that the legal system treats testimony by rape survivors with more distrust than testimony about other types of crimes. Women’s moral character is aggressively questioned, they are asked whether the rapist used force, and whether and how often she said no or screamed for help. The suspicion that sex was consensual or her fault is especially intense if the rape happened in a club or bar, or if the woman had been drinking.

The fact is that sex without consent is rape, and assaulting a woman is a punishable crime, no matter who committed it, what the victim wore or said, and where it occurred. Instead of blaming victims of sexual violence, Wambui should show leadership by calling for an end to impunity for sexual violence in Kenya.