The 160 Girls Project: Arthur Speaks with Fiona Sampson

Trent University’s Alumni Affairs is putting on a free lecture by the co-founder/executive director of the Equality Effect, Fiona Sampson. Titled: 160 Girls Project – Setting Out to Change the World, Starting in Meru, Kenya, this lecture is based on the stories of 160 girls and women from Eastern Kenya who have been raped and have come together to speak up and seek justice. The lecture takes place November 22nd at 7:00 p.m. at Market Hall.

Fiona Sampson received her M.A. (87’) in Canadian Heritage and Development Studies, writing her thesis on Canadian Aboriginal Peoples. When asked, she described how the lessons she learned at Trent were pivotal and went far beyond the curriculum. Through close relationships with fellow students and professors, Fiona gained an appreciation for cross-cultural studies and collaborative work. What resonated with her from her experiences at Trent University was a drive to continue on with social justice.

Aside from her work with the Equality Effect, Fiona Sampson acts as Staff Lawyer and the Director of Litigation at the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF). She has appeared before the Supreme Court of Canada as counsel for NGOs working on women’s equality rights cases, and has worked as a legal consultant for the Ontario Native Council on Justice, the DisAbled Women’s Network (DAWN) of Canada, Education Wife Assault, and the Ethiopian Muslim Relief and Development Association.

Fiona recounted how the Equality Effect grew from friendships developed during her education at Osgoode Hall law school, where she received her Ph.D. in women’s equality law. With her colleagues from Ghana and Kenya she began to have discussions about gender equality in Canada and Africa. Upon graduating they continued contact and worked together on various projects. After a stint working at a law firm, she decided to take on the cause of gender equality full-time. Fasken Martineau’s Women’s Networking Initiative update outlines how in 2008, using as a model work done in Canada in the 1980’s, Fiona and her colleagues decided to work on reforming laws around sexual assault it in parts of Africa.

The Equality Effect presently works towards gender equality in Ghana, Kenya, and Malawi. The organization believes that merely funding education or providing physical resources is an insufficient means to address the complex issues surrounding the empowerment of women. They see it more as an issue of inequality and ask whether these women can actually use these resources. Fiona Sampson helped frame the discussion in terms of intersectionality, which is the theory that there are multiple factors involved in inequality. Fiona described how relative to Canada, in these countries issues of race and economic discrimination are minimal, due to the fact that much of the population finds themselves in the same situation. More relevant factors in these regions are age, disability, rural versus urban populations, and gender. The age factor especially leaves young girls vulnerable to rape, because there exists a legend that sexual intercourse with a virgin is the cure to HIV/AIDS. Some believe that the younger the girl, the stronger the cure.

The 160 Girls Project stresses that despite 20 years of public education against rape in Kenya, the situation is becoming worse. In 2011, every 30 minutes at least one girl or woman was raped in Kenya. These women were raped by family members, teachers, landlords, and police. There is the added issue of HIV/AIDS, which has caused many of these girls to be orphaned and which some of these girls have contracted themselves through being raped.

The Equality Effect describes how Kenyan support structures have failed. Women may seek shelter and refuge, but after six weeks they are sent out on their own again. There are also laws that prohibit rape in Kenya, but the police do not enforce these laws. The project aims to develop a legal strategy in order pressure the police into enforcing the law and to properly prosecute those who are guilty of rape. But considering there are multiple accounts of rape by police, the issue is not solely one of police enforcement.

Spousal rape is also a serious issue. In the Women’s Court of Canada Report from Kenya, spousal rape is framed in terms of its roots in British colonial rule. Among other countries, Kenya, Ghana, Malawi, and Canada all fell under colonial rule, which came with a patriarchal ideology that allowed martial sexual assault. The legal framework was established by England’s Sir Matthew Hale, who created a law that said men could force sexual intercourse with their wives, who had literally given themselves to their husbands in marriage.

The 2010 Report for the Criminalization of Spousal Rape states that Canada—which reformed its laws to prohibit spousal rape in 1983—still has made little progress in the prosecution of these crimes. Fiona Sampson suggested that although in Canada gender equality has shown improvements in terms of sexual violence, women’s economic rights have been eroding. In Kenya the issue is complicated by the fact that wives are considered their husband’s chattel. This type of ownership brings up the problem again of intersecting oppressions, in that these women have multiple socio-economic factors working against them and the true legal ownership of their bodies is not their own.

The Equality Effect tackles rape and other issues of gender inequality in Kenya from a legal standpoint. The organization’s website describes its goal “to improve the health, safety, and standard of living of women”. They focus on problems surrounding oppression and disadvantage in terms of sexual assault, HIV/AIDS, and the legal status of property ownership. They look to educate and support women to use the legal system to seek their human rights. The Equality Effect also looks to mobilize and support the public in reforming law that discriminates against women.

The Equality Effect, at the time named the African and Canadian Women’s Human Rights Project, held a conference in 2010 in Kenya to develop a legal strategy to help with the issue of rape. With workshops based around the topic Criminalization of Spousal Rape, all nations presently involved with the organization were represented—Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, and Canada.

Fiona Sampson described this conference as an introductory step. During the conference strategies discussed included public education, police training, and the provision of legal advice to women, especially those living within rural communities. There has been progress since the conference in 2010, including significant improvement in Ghana.

The Equality Effect outlines a crucial need in restructuring legal systems and altering patriarchal cultures in parts of Africa, like Kenya. Canadians need to develop awareness of these issues and begin discussions about making change. Rape is a sensitive topic and refusal to speak about it is part of the problem. Fiona Sampson expressed her deep frustration in seeking support from Canadians. People are quick to shy away from these types of conversations, but there is a clear and pressing need. These 160 women and girls from Kenya are speaking out, and must be heard and supported.

For more information or to offer support to the Equality Effect and the 160 Girls Project, you can attend the lecture on November 22nd, or visit their website.