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Preventing sexual assault in Kenyan girls — Stanford researchers make inroads

Many Kenyan girls never learn that it's OK to defend themselves against sexual assault. They are expected to be acquiescent and "nice" to everyone, and often feel obliged to keep quiet about being harassed or raped. But, as I've reported several times over the last few years, a US-based NGO called No Means No Worldwide is changing that.

In schools in the slums of Nairobi, the organization has worked with Stanford researchers to test an empowerment curriculum that teaches girls how to stand up for themselves to stop assault. Their companion curriculum for boys teaches healthy gender roles, including respect for women and positive masculinity.

The researchers recently published an important addition to their growing evidence of success: the first randomized controlled trial of the two educational programs. The trial, appearing in Prevention Science, also marks the first test of the programs in primary-school students, most of whom were between 12 and 14 years old when they received the training. Of the more than 5,000 girls enrolled in the study at 28 participating schools, those at the 14 schools where empowerment training was taught experienced about half as many sexual assaults in the follow-up period as they would have had they received the control treatment, which was standard health education.

"Starting in younger adolescents, we hope that we may be able to change community gender norms," said the trial's senior author, Clea Sarnquist, DrPH, noting that prior studies were conducted only in high school students. "We have a larger vision that the younger you do that, the more the whole community will hopefully shift."

The trial is appearing in a special Prevention Science issue that focuses on averting aggression and violence toward children and teens around the world. The journal's editors said they especially wanted to highlight programs that are succeeding in developing countries, and show how they do it. Along those lines, Sarnquist pointed out that a major strength of No Means No Worldwide is that the organization recruits and trains respected local adults as its educators, often people who have grown up in the same slums where they teach. Kenyan scientists are also collaborating with Stanford's experts on the design and execution of the research.

"The NGO was expanding and planning to move into new schools, and we worked with them to do that in a way that they could learn as much as possible from the process by thinking carefully in how we designed the experiment," said lead study author Michael Baiocchi, PhD.

Baiocchi, Sarnquist and their colleagues in the U.S. and Kenya are now running an even larger trial described in a recent story in Stanford Medicine magazine. The larger trial will let them ask which teens are most helped by the curriculum, and will help the team figure out what aspects of their programs need more work.

"Sexual violence is kept so quiet and not well talked about or documented, so people have all these theories about what might be happening," Baiocchi said. "Being able to document that the program does have an impact is really important, especially for other people who want to put a stop to sexual assault and intimate partner violence."

Previously: Sexual assault prevention program reduces pregnancy-related school dropouts in Kenya, Male attitudes about sexual violence challenged by educational program in Kenya and Empowerment training prevents rape of Kenyan girls
Photo of the Stanford and Kenyan researchers by Nichole Sobecki for Stanford Medicine

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