Hailing from the plains of Kangundo, Machakos County, Rita Mutheu never envisioned becoming a fierce defender for women’s rights.
She had her light bulb moment in 2014 when she came across a viral video of a woman being stripped in broad daylight for allegedly dressing indecently at a bus station in Nairobi.
Mutheu and other women she met on the Facebook platform, Kilimani Mums, started the My Dress My Choice Campaign which trended worldwide as women and rights activists condemned the brutal act.
Today, Mutheu is a women’s rights activist and co-founder of HER (Health, Empowerment & Rights) VOICE, a non-governmental organization that seeks to end Gender-Based Violence by influencing behavioural change by instilling values to promote positive masculinity.
The mother of two spoke to Nation about her journey.
Did you always envision yourself as a human rights activist or was this something you stumbled upon or picked up later?
It had not consciously envisioned myself as an activist until that day when I stumbled upon a video of a woman being stripped in a bus stop in Nairobi and decided to act. We met at PAWA 254 and this is how the My Dress My Choice campaigns started.
You played a big role in these campaigns. Give us a sneak peek of the campaign and protests?
I never thought it needed so much planning. It was only after a meeting with Boniface Mwangi, the founder of PAWA 254, that we realised how much needed to be done before the actual protests. We had to get a permit, prepare campaign material, mobilise the public and also submit a petition.
It would have been pointless to march without submitting a petition. Overall, the protests were very successful as they attracted the attention of both local and international media.
How did HER VOICE, come about, and what are you currently doing with the outfit?
After the protests, people felt that we had a voice, and there was so much that we could do. I founded HER VOICE alongside eight women from the original Kilimani Mums group.
We aim to create safe public spaces where men, women and children live in peaceful coexistence.
What are some of the challenges of being a women rights activist in Kenya, and what are some of the lessons you’ve learnt along the way?
The society that we live in is mostly patriarchal. Some people do not take it kindly that we are fighting for women’s rights.
The meaning of feminism has been misconstrued, yet we know there are also men who have undergone certain abuses and violations which we also stand against.
Funding has also been a challenge. However, we have found ways of fighting for human rights even without necessarily having funding.
This is because, for most of us, we do it for the passion. In the future, we hope to create an open safe house and anyone willing to come on board and support such a project would be welcome.
The most important lesson I have learnt is to lose everything but never lose hope. Despite the challenges, we keep fighting.
What is your ideal world for both men and women in Kenya?
My ideal world would be a place where men, women and children can work and coexist cohesively. I hope to see a world where there is respect for all genders. It is important to note that if the fight for women is to end, men at all levels also need to come on board.
Women cannot win alone. There have also been incidences where men are the victims of abuse. We also condemn such incidences.
Tell us about some of the notable achievements and recognition you’ve received from your work?
I am the 2018 PEPFAR Champions for Change Award Winner (PEPFAR is a US government initiative). After the protest, the sexual bill was amended and has been implemented. Stripping is now a punishable offence by the law.
What should we expect from you in future?
We are hoping to push for more case prosecutions and particularly those that relate to rape against minors. We are hoping to fight for stricter regulations on this.
We also hope to continue fighting gender-based violence, to protect victims of that violence, and mostly influence behaviour change by promoting values that promote peaceful coexistence.