Diversity and Inclusion
Sexual Assault

Developing effective methods to prevent sexual assault

How are sexual assault and sexual violence localized social problems? How do cultural and community specificities shape efforts to eradicate sexual assault? What are the similarities across cultural contexts? What types of research and collaborations may help us understand the universality of the culture of sexual assault?

Clea Sarnquist presents her research

These are just a handful of questions that framed the Clayman Institute’s winter term symposium on “Breaking the Cultural of Sexual Assault.” The event took us halfway around the world to the unplanned settlements of Nairobi, Kenya, where Stanford Gender-Based Violence Prevention Collaborators Dr. Clea Sarnquist and Dr. Mike Baiocchi have conducted multi-year research on preventative sexual assault education and methods.

In the unplanned settlements—commonly regarded as the “slums of Nairobi”—sexual assault is more than an epidemic, it is endemic to everyday life for women. According to a recent report published by Stanford Medicine, “[s]urveys by national organizations reveal that as many as 46 percent of Kenyan women experience sexual assault as children,” with “52 percent of perpetrators [being] the boyfriends of the girls they rape.” Sarnquist and Baiocchi added during their presentation that the annual incidence of rape of girls living in the settlements ages 13 to 19 is upwards to 25%, while only 6% of these cases are reported to the police. Causes for this discrepancy include the psychological stigma of being assaulted; fear of retaliation, especially since nearly all women are financially dependent upon men; or the belief that there will be no justice, since it is known in the settlements that perpetrators pay off the police. 

Sarnquist and Baiocchi have collaborated with the US-based NGO No Means No Worldwide to developed workable solutions for change in order to promote gender equality and, more fundamentally, safety for Kenyan women and girls. The research they presented at the symposium highlighted the results of a randomized controlled trial of the No Means No Worldwide, a behavioral intervention program designed to reduce the rate of gender-based violence. The study focused on 28 schools and they collected survey information from more than 5,600 girls between the ages of 10 and 14. The complete findings are reported in a special issue of Prevention ScienceIn an ongoing series of trials they have studied the effects of an education program in Nairobi that educates both girls and boys about gender-based violence. 

The boys and girls are trained in separate, six-week programs, primarily by instructors who have grown up in the settlements themselves and are intimately knowledgeable about the culture. Both programs are structured and devised as behavioral interventions. The girls program is grounded in empowerment and self-defense, including situational awareness and verbal skills to raise girls’ self-esteem and confidence. They are taught, Sarnquist and Baiocchi stressed, to understand the phrase “I am worth defending.” And the researchers documented the noticeable positive change at a follow-up meeting with these female students: “In the intervention group at follow-up,” they explained in the same article at Prevention Science, “35% of girls reported using the skills learned in the trainings to stop a sexual assault. Of these girls, they reported using only verbal skills 37% of the time, only physical skills 23% of the time, and both verbal and physical skills 40% of the time.”

The boys program is guided by an education based in instruction on healthy gender norms and positive expressions of masculinity, in addition to teaching them tactics for bystander intervention if they witness someone being harassed. In both programs, breaking gender norms and re-imagining femininity and masculinity are critical to students’ instruction. The girls are taught that they can fight back and stand up for themselves, while the boys are taught that being a strong man means making their community stronger and supporting others in their community. For the boys, learning how to model positive behaviors is more important—and shown to be more effective—than unlearning harmful behaviors. Sarnquist and Baiocchi explained the purpose of this dual-gender program in the language of an analogy to the prevention of an infectious disease: one approach is to “immunize,” which occurs in the girls’ program;  another approach is “vector control,” which enlists the help of the boys to improve the community; and the third step is to eventually establish a “controlled environment” that legally and socially enforces positive gender norms.

Changing gender norms changes gender expectations. Through rethinking gender—a thematic emphasis of the Clayman Institute’s “Breaking the Culture of Sexual Assault” symposium—society can move toward the eradication of the systemic oppression of women. This societal change starts with developing the emotional, psychological, and physical skills in the next generation of the community. By putting in place words and concepts for identifying and discussing difficult topics, and putting in place rigorously tested strategies for advocating for themselves and other, we produce a new generation of women and men who can change their community from its most intimate interactions to its most public.

Through their empirical research, Sarnquist and Baiocchi show how small wins at the individual level of education and the training of individual behaviors can produce social change. Results published in Pediatrics in 2014 show that these kinds of trainings “decrease sexual assault rates among adolescent girls in Kenya. The intervention was also associated with an increase in the disclosure of assaults, thereby enabling survivors to seek care and support and possibly leading to the identification and prosecution of perpetrators.” 

Gender equality, in this regard, is most possible when both genders are educated on the perils of gender norms and biases. Violence against women is shown to be solvable when it is de-normalized and when masculinity is not believed to be contingent upon the oppression of women and girls.