Gung-ho grannies learn self-defence

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NAIROBI, 27 January 2010 (PlusNews) - In a community hall in Korogocho, a slum in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, an instructor takes his students through their paces, but unlike the usual fitness fanatics, today's class is a group of elderly women learning self-defence techniques.

I'm Worth Defending (IWD), which conducts the training, teaches self-defence to school-children, young men and women, and most recently, to elderly women in Korogocho and other Nairobi slums.

Frida Wambui*, 60, is one. Two years ago, three drunken young men broke into her home in the middle of the night and brutally raped her.

"They knew I lived alone... they broke [down] the door and came in and covered my eyes with a blanket, then they raped me... and left me there just lying on the floor," she told IRIN/PlusNews. "I can't believe people young enough to be my grandchildren could do that to me.

"When I heard they are teaching women how to beat rapists here, I decided to come and learn," she added. "Now I know if somebody wants to rape me, I just poke their eyes and make a noise."

Nairobi has some of the worst crime statistics in Africa and sexual violence is widespread. In an area such as Korogocho, where unemployment and the abuse of alcohol and illegal drugs are common, it is even higher. The Nairobi Women's Hospital, home to the country's largest gender violence recovery centre, treats about 230 cases of sexual violence every month - the oldest survivor was 105 years old.

"When it comes to rape, I am my only defender," said Veronica Njeri, 65, another member of the class. "Here in the slums, people act like there is no law."

Raising awareness

Since the classes for senior citizens began in 2008, IWD has taught more than 1,000 women in five Nairobi slums to defend themselves, using community leaders to raise awareness about the service.

"Many people are convinced that old people have no HIV and so having sex with them is safe," said Philip Otieno, executive director of IWD. "Others do it for ritual reasons... [some] criminals believe that having sex with an old person before or after a robbery will bring good luck either for a successful mission next time or protection from the police."

The belief that older people are not sexually active and therefore free of HIV is misplaced; the Kenya AIDS Indicator Survey 2007 puts the HIV prevalence among people aged 50-64 at 5 percent.

According to Marion Ouma, a programme officer with the local NGO, HelpAge Kenya, older women are an easy target for rapists.

"Many old women [live] alone, which makes them very vulnerable to rapists. In informal settlements, the easiest targets become the old and children due to perceived weakness," she said. "When a grandmother is raped, she would never want to reveal it… [because of] the shame it would bring to the family."

IWD also offers trauma counselling for rape survivors, and refers women to health facilities for medical training.

"Many women, including old women, are stigmatised after a rape ordeal, so we came up with a Rape Survivors Anonymous forum as a way for them to talk openly about it, [and] meet other survivors to give them the confidence that they are not alone," Otieno said.

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