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Kenyan elderly women learn to defend themselves against sexual attack

Jane Waithageni Kimaru, 60 years old, center-left, shows women how to fend off a potential rapist and escape, during a Taekwondo self-defense class for women in Korogocho   -  
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Brian Inganga/Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

Kenya

In the alleyways of a Korogocho slum in Kenya, 15 women, many of them grandmothers, have enrolled in twice-a-week taekwondo classes at a run-down community centre.

At the Korogocho community hall, women clad in headscarves and long skirts are punching, with bare knuckles, sacks full of old clothes produced as makeshift punching bags.

One after the other, the women are seen walking slowly past raw sewage and sharp metal roofing to an open space in Korogocho which is a Swahili term meaning "crowded shoulder to shoulder."

Korogocho is one of the largest slum neighborhoods of Nairobi.

High population and unemployment are rife in the slum.

Lack of prospects and a secure future mean many youths are vulnerable to joining gangs which can lead them to commit crimes including rape.

The aim of the training sessions are to protect women from such attacks.

Every Thursday at 2 pm the fifteen women, aged mainly between 60 and 80, meet for a taekwondo training session.

The oldest woman in the class is Wambui Njoroge, who is believed to be around 110 years old.

It's a grim reminder that such women are vulnerable to sexual predators.

"You do not need a lot of energy it is just self-defence; just to protect yourself and run away. You do not necessarily have to defeat them (referring to the attacker) you just stun them and before they realise/stand up again you get away," explains 60-year-old Jane Waithaigeni Gabriel Kimaru, the team leader and trainer.

Those late for the class are ordered to do sit-ups as punishment she says.

In Korogocho there is a high percentage of widows and single mothers who have the hard task of bringing up children in difficult conditions.

Elderly women suffer far higher levels of sexual abuse since they are deemed weaker by the attackers.

Part of their training involves learning to vocalise their distress during any attack to ensure that they are heard.

"No, no, no," they are told to shout.

The protection strategy is used to alert any nearby members of the public, should they suffer an attack.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Kenyan authorities say rape and sexual abuse cases have increased. Kenya's Ministry of Health says it has received reports of at least 5,000 sexual violence cases across the country, many of whom live in poverty.

Officials say in many cases the perpetrators are close to the victims and do not believe the abuse is a crime.

"When you look at me you think I'm foolish you think this old woman is foolish but you shall see who I am," says 72-year-old Esther Wambui Mureithi, who lives in the Korogocho slum.

"And for that this training, that we have been trained here, we have been well trained and for that we are not afraid anymore and if you're still afraid the chances for the attacker are high, but if you are well trained you can defend yourself and the man will be afraid of you because you have been trained properly."