The Flip Side of Girl Empowerment? [ARCHIVE]

  • Blog
  • 4 Jul 2017

“If we leave our boys behind…our girls will continue to struggle”

In today’s global society, where girls have become the key focus of empowerment campaigns, many boys feel abandoned, left out of the spotlight and threatened by the new relationship discourse in which their role is no longer that of power or priority. Rather than give up however, boys are inventing new ways to stay on top – in the space where they are still in charge, i.e., the bedroom.

In recent travels, our team met with and talked to young girls across Kenya about their lives, relationships, boys they like, and the challenges they face, including how they protect themselves from diseases and unplanned pregnancies. We heard a lot of stories – some were happy, some were amusing. But many were unhappy, disturbing stories which made us stop and think.

We talked to girls in Kisii, and they told us that if a girl sneaks into her boyfriend’s house to spend the night with him, she might wake up to find that he has put all of her clothes in a barrel of rainwater. She can’t be seen walking around in wet clothes and she cannot scream for help because the boy’s parents will discover her and ruin her reputation. So she is stuck in her boyfriend’s house until he decides he is done ‘playing’ with her. “How can we even dare to think about raising the issue of protection after we’ve been put down and humiliated like this?” Kisii girls asked us.

We talked to girls in Voi who told us how boys in their area arrange “soft” group rapes. When a girl hits it off with a boy, he brings her to his house and leaves the door unlocked and the lights off. As things get hot, the boy’s friends come in and quietly take turns to have sex with the girl, who believes she is there with one boy. “How can we make sure that the boy keeps a condom on during sex if we cannot even be sure that the boy remains the same throughout the night?” the girls asked us.

We have talked to girls across Kenya and many feel that boys have been “changing their ways” for the worse. Girls feel that young men are becoming increasingly creative in getting them to have sex with them – through tricks, gifts, or coercion “if you won’t do it with me secretly, I will tell everyone we are having sex and publicly shame you”. Once they make their relationships public, boys are seen to become more controlling; they want to make sure it is their decision that defines the choices girls make, including decisions about protection.

Gift giving is worth exploring more because it is this that helped us get a glimpse into what motivates boys’ behaviour with girls. Gifts are the direct link between the two things which contribute to a boy’s social status – sex and money. Based on our conversations with boys, many believe that modern girls expect to be spoilt. And so, they try to ‘spoil’ their girlfriends by making enough money to buy them gifts – sometimes at the expense of their own needs and wants – all to prevent their girls from leaving them for a ‘sponsor’. Losing a girl to a sponsor would damage their social status. Sometimes all this effort becomes too stressful as boys are convinced that there is always a wealthier guy waiting in the shadows trying to lure his girl with the latest phone.

This feeling of insecurity becomes overwhelming and so some boys break down and resort to tricks and bedroom tyranny. They check girls’ arms for implants, check their purses for condoms, coerce them into unprotected sex as a symbol of love and trust, make decisions on their hustles and earnings to control their financial independence – the list goes on.

While this reactionary trend is concerning, it is not irreversible. We have to understand that a disproportional focus on girls creates a misbalanced discourse, which (a) is not organically aligned with the image of successful relationships between two equal partners, and (b) creates a backlash against girls who can become a tool for boys to regain their social status.

We need to talk to girls and boys as couples, about their decisions to protect their futures, whether the future is together or not. We have recently collaborated with Y-LABS on their ‘Men Stand Up’ campaign to better understand the family planning needs, preferences and behaviours of young men in Kenya (keep an eye out for our upcoming blog on our time in the field with Y-LABS)

One thing we’re sure of – it’s a rare boy who genuinely wants to be a tormenter, but for many it’s the only way they know. We must include boys in the discourse to show them a different way and we should never try to silence or overpower them because then everyone will lose.