Kenya’s December 2007 elections resulted in weeks of political violence that cost the lives of nearly 1,000 people and displaced 600,000 more. To end the violence, the political adversaries developed a 2008 power sharing agreement and a unity government; today that government is embroiled in debate. Fearing a breakdown between their political leaders and a return to violence, on April 30, Kenya’s women called for a week-long sex strike.
The strike, which ended on May 7, received the support of both the Prime Minister’s and President’s wives. Even sex workers were encouraged to participate. Speaking to a local newspaper, a representative of the Federation of Women Lawyers, one of 11 groups that supported the strike, commented that they had asked sex workers to join the cause, even offering to pay them in order to ensure that they could abstain from servicing their clients.
The strike was called by Kenya’s largest and oldest women’s rights group, Women’s Development Organization, and is reminiscent of the 411 BC Greek play Lysistrata, in which the women of Greece vow to withhold sex from their men until they end the Peloponnesian War.
The Prime Minister’s wife, Ida Odinga, told CNN that she supported the campaign “100 percent.” Further noting that, “this should not be seen as a punishment to men, it is a measure that is aimed at drawing their attention to the real issues.”
While the strike drew amused commentary from news media around the world, the boycott did focus attention on the country’s substantive concerns. The Women’s Development Organization hopes that the boycott will persuade men to work towards peace. “We have looked at all issues which can bring people to talk and we have seen that sex is the answer….It does not know tribe, it does not have a [political] party and it happens in the lowest households,” said Rukia Subow, chairwomen of the organization.
As Kenyan politicians argue over protocol and procedure instead of ending corruption and poverty, it is the country’s women and children who suffer disproportionately.
The strike was a radical move given the challenges facing many of Africa’s women. Not only are societies in Africa frequently very socially conservative, but despite the pivotal role that women play in the economy and household, male patriarchy still rules supreme.
The strike created a stir in Kenya; however, other women have recently used the same tactic as well. In 2006 a group of women in Pereira, a city in western Colombia, launched a sex strike to dissuade men from joining criminal gangs. In Turkey, rural women used the strategy to force their partners to restore a town’s water supply. And in Naples, Italy women pledged to go without sex unless their men refrained from setting off illegal fireworks during New Year’s celebrations.
The impact of the sex strike is yet to be determined, but it is hoped that Kenya’s politicians will heed the demands of their women and begun to put the needs and priorities of their country first.