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How Kenya’s self-defence classes are halting the rape pandemic in its tracks

This “empowerment self-defence” program slashed rape by 51% among Nairobi adolescents

(This article first appeared at Apolitical)

Teaching self-defence to girls in Nairobi has cut rates of sexual assault among participants in half. IMpower, a dual-gender program, teaches girls to defend themselves and boys to intervene in assaults by adapting feminist models of empowerment self-defence to a Kenyan context. The course has slashed rates of sexual assault and related ills: the rate of pregnancy-related school dropout plummeted by 46% among participants.

Results & Impact

No Means No has conducted quasi-experimental and randomized control trials in Kenya and Malawi. Findings include an average 51% decrease in the incidence of rape among trainees in the year after the program—no mean feat in a country where one in four women has experienced sexual or intimate partner violence in the last 12 months. Some 50% of girls stopped a rape in the year after training, while 73% of boys who intervened in an assault successfully prevented its completion. Overall, interventions when witnessing assault jumped from 26% to 74%. To date, the program has reached some 180,000 boys and girls.

Key Parties

No Means No Worldwide, Ujaama Africa, UK Department for International Development.


The IMpower self-defence course designed by No Means No is a 12-hour course, administered in two-hour lessons once a week by trained instructors. Classes take place in school and cover a comprehensive curriculum from lessons on consent, confidence and bodily autonomy through to self-defence classes to disable attackers. Boys’ classes focus on respect for women, disrupting harmful stereotypes, and how to intervene in assaults.


Nairobi, Kenya

Target Group

Women and girls, men and boys, children

Cost & Value

To date, the cost of the development of IMpower since 2009 has totalled just over $430,000.


Running since 2009


As the program takes place on school premises, teachers are expected to oversee the program. A minority objected to the extra time this required, while others objected to any course content that dealt with sexuality. Most, according to the program’s founder, were supportive. Concerns that attempts to intervene in assaults might make the rapists more violent were rebuffed by the program's founder.


The program has been rolled out in Malawi to great success: randomised control trials for the Kenyan and Malawian programs have demonstrated significant reductions in the incidence of rape and the success of interventions. The Malawi program was primarily a research initiative, while a forthcoming rollout to Uganda is set to become a regional hub for NMNW.

The Story

In Nairobi’s slums, Kenya’s violence epidemic is plain to see. Ranked 135 in the United Nations Gender Inequality Index, some one in four women in Kenya have experienced sexual or intimate partner violence in the last 12 months.

Lee Paiva, CEO and Founder of No Means No Worldwide, witnessed the toll of sexual violence while walking through a slum in 2009. Girls, adolescents, mothers and grandmothers all bore the marks of a rape epidemic. “If people think it’s going to be an app or a presentation that’s going to end this thing, they have another thing coming,” she said.

Paiva founded No Means No Worldwide to “end the global rape epidemic.” Its flagship program, a six-week course known as IMpower has transformed the lives of its participants: among the 180,000 girls and boys taught by the program, the incidence of rape has fallen by just over 50%.

IMpower combines education and direct action founded on feminist principles. The 12-hour curriculum for girls aged between 10 and 20 covers a range of topics, from assertiveness, consent and bodily autonomy to self-defence and immobilisation techniques.

IMpower does not focus on women alone, however. It is one of the few self-defence courses that runs a bespoke program for boys. After an initial course on gender equality aimed at shattering harmful stereotypes, the boys are taught techniques to intervene in attempted assaults. In the year following the training, 73% of boys who intervened in an assault successfully prevented its completion.

Central to each course is not simply physical techniques to repel an attacker, but training in situational judgement: “The judicious use of these strategies across the board has demonstrated a knowledge and wisdom and intuitive ability well beyond anything I thought kids of this age were capable of,” Paiva said. When asked if self-defence techniques risk exacerbating the violence of a given sexual assault, Paiva had heard of no testimony to corroborate the claim. She now hopes to develop IMpower programs for children from the age of five, tailored to their educational needs.

The gender-specific courses are taught by local activists and campaigners with roots in the communities they serve. In collaboration with implementation partner Ujamaa, instructors undergo a month-long training course which comprises the course curriculum and a range of supplementary skills: data collection, research methods to assess the project’s impact, and trauma sensitivity are all mandatory.

Combining local knowledge with a standardised curriculum is essential to the success of the project, which has seen interventions in assaults soar from 26% to 74%. A similar program—albeit more research-oriented—has been rolled out with UNICEF’s support in Malawi, while Paiva is working to roll out IMpower in Uganda over the coming year in association with BRAC.

With five published papers, collaborations with Stanford and Johns Hopkins, two RCTs in progress, and a project with funding partners DfID as part of the What Works global campaign, IMpower looks set to take empowerment self-defence worldwide.

(Picture credit: No Means No Worldwide)


  1. United Nations Gender Inequality Index
  2. United Nations Women: Global Database on Violence Against Women
  3. A Self-Defense Program Reduces the Incidence of Sexual Assault in Kenyan Adolescent Girls
  4. Rape Prevention Through Empowerment of Adolescent Girls
  5. Evidence That Classroom-Based Behavioral Interventions Reduce Pregnancy-Related School Dropout Among Nairobi Adolescents
  6. A 6-Week School Curriculum Improves Boys’ Attitudes and Behaviors Related to Gender-Based Violence in Kenya

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