Reducing Sexual Assault through the Empowerment of High School Girls

Ujamaa Africa with its No Means No Worldwide curriculum reduces the prevalence of rape and sexual assault in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya by empowering high school girls with self-defense tactics.

Sexual assault is endemic in Kenya, with one in four schoolgirls having experienced it in the past year. Besides inducing a negative emotional impact, sexual assault and rape can lead to sexually transmitted infections including HIV/AIDS, unwanted pregnancies, and unsafe abortions. The risk of HIV/AIDS is particularly high in Kenya, where 2.7% of 15- to 19-year-olds and 6.4% of 20 to 24 year-olds are infected. Early sexual experiences are associated with a significantly higher rate of HIV/AIDS infection, hence the importance of empowering girls at a young age.

Ujamaa Africa noticed that many existing programs focused on aftercare for women and girls who had been sexually assaulted or raped. They decided to instead concentrate on prevention, using self-defense tactics taught by No Means No Worldwide. The No Means No Worldwide curriculum, IMpower, focuses on using girls’ personal strengths to help them claim their rights and set boundaries. It also empowers girls by placing the responsibility for sexual assault on the perpetrator, not the victim.

With the support of the Kenyan Ministry of Education, the No Means No Worldwide sessions take place in public high schools in Nairobi slums. Although the curriculum is not mandatory in schools, government authorization allows trainers access to schools. Six two-hour sessions are held over the course of six weeks. In order to ensure content retention, two hour refresher courses are taught at 3, 6, 9, and 10 month intervals. Course content includes verbal resistance strategies, physical fighting, and escaping extreme risk situations. Much of the class time is devoted to practicing these techniques to ensure that course participants become comfortable using them. The course also provides a safe space for girls to reveal if they have been sexually abused, at which point they are encouraged to seek help from the Sexual Assault Survivors Anonymous organization.

In order to increase the high school girls’ comfort, No Means No Worldwide trainers are all local women between the ages of twenty and thirty-two. They receive three weeks of intensive training on verbal and physical skills followed by a week of practice teaching local children. The trainers learn data collection, trauma sensitivity and other skills with continuing education. The trainers must also pass written, oral, and physical skills exams before becoming paid employees. Course sizes are also kept low, with a teacher-student ratio of approximately 1:15, so that participants can have adequate access to the trainer. The call for trainers has always been successful.

The initial challenges faced by Ujamaa Africa were funding for the program and opposition from some teachers. Teachers were reluctant initially as their presence were required during the sessions which follow immediately after classes. This No Means No Worldwide program was a pioneer program in that it seeks to prevent rape and not for aftercare for which most funding was concentrated upon. Any resistance was overcome once tangible results were seen from the training as studies have shown. This program has drawn strong support from parents, the local chiefs and elders.

Ujamaa Africa has been able to reach between 21,000 and 27,000 high school girls each year through their sessions in schools, which started in 2010. The project has been aided by funding from the British government. In a study of one group, comprised of 402 girls from eight high schools in the slum of Korogocho, 23.1% of the girls said that they had experienced sexual assault in the year prior to the No Means No Worldwide intervention. Ten months after the training, only 9.2% reported such an experience. 56.4% of the participants said that they had used the self-defense skills they had learned in the training to successfully fight off an attacker and avoid an assault. In a current study, it is found that the program cost is $1.75 for each rape prevented as compared to the $86 cost for one post-rape visit to a Nairobi hospital.

In the course of implementing the IMpower curriculum, it was discovered that the biggest risk of sexual assault to girls came from their own boyfriends. In order to address this problem, Ujamaa Africa developed a parallel program for young men, called Your Moment of Truth (see tactic here). Due to positive results, there are plans for expansion for both programs in Africa including a global expansion by Ujamaa Africa.



New Tactics in Human Rights does not advocate for or endorse specific tactics, policies or issues.

What we can learn from this tactic: 

Empowerment of marginalized populations and victims of abuse is a primary component of human rights advocacy. Consider how your organization is working to empower your target communities. This tactic focused on giving girls tools to empower and strengthen themselves. Teaching girls self-defense, as well as how to identify and escape risky situations provides long-term benefits for each girl, but also to the entire community. Violence against women is situated in larger social, cultural and political contexts, with learned behaviors that are embedded in societies. See also tactics working to engage and educate men, boys and others in the community about forms of violence against women and how to change their own behavior.