A former basketball player in Kenya says sexual abuse has plagued the country’s women’s game “for many, many years” but that a climate of fear is preventing victims from speaking out.
Now in her 30s, she says she was sexually abused by one of her coaches as she started out in the game.
Her comments come with African women’s basketball under the spotlight following last week’s publication of an official report which detailed “institutionalised sexual abuse” dating back decades in the Malian game.
“Everywhere in Kenya, basketball players know these things but people have been quiet,” the Kenyan victim, who we’re calling Rachel to protect her identity, told BBC Sport Africa. “Many girls have been used but they don’t want to say anything.”
“There were so many girls I see, even in big teams here, but they are all quiet. I think people have been afraid. In Kenya, people have been used.”
Speaking on condition of anonymity, Rachel said the abuse was often linked to pledges to advance the career of young players, many of them teenagers at the time.
Rachel was speaking without knowledge of an ongoing investigation by Human Rights Watch (HRW) into allegations of sexual abuse in Kenyan basketball.
The international campaign group played a key role in helping some of those who suffered from Mali’s long-standing abuse, which was laid out in a reportexternal-link commissioned by basketball’s governing body Fiba, find their voice.
HRW is now turning its attention to Kenya.
“Human Rights Watch is looking into and is concerned about reports of sexual abuse of young female athletes in Kenya’s Basketball Federation (KBF),” Minky Worden, HRW’s Director of Global Initiatives, told BBC Sport Africa.
“Officials in national basketball have a duty to protect young players and to ensure their safety. Fiba, the global basketball federation, has a ‘zero tolerance’ policy against sexual abuse in sport.
“It is the responsibility of Fiba and all national sports federations to ensure a safe environment for teen players, to kick abusers out of sport, and to ensure justice for harassment and gender-based violence.”
‘I need to save myself’
HRW’s statement comes a month after a recent member of the KBF’s Executive Committee was cleared of attempting to sexually assault a 22-year-old basketballer in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.
In July, Philip Onyango – considered one of the country’s most successful coaches and who has previously coached Kenya’s junior women’s teams – voluntarily stepped aside from his various roles while a police investigation into the woman’s allegations was carried out.
The following day, the KBF “expelled [Onyango] from all basketball responsibilities and activities” with immediate effect following their own preliminary investigation.
Onyango, who also works as a basketball journalist, strongly denied any wrongdoing. He was later cleared by police owing to insufficient evidence.external-link He has not, as yet, been reinstated into any of his previous roles with the KBF.
When contacted by the BBC, the 22-year-old expressed her dismay at the outcome of the police investigation.
“The case was closed because there was no evidence,” she said. “I was so disappointed.”
The case was only brought after a friend of the 22-year-old’s secretly recorded a conversation as the latter detailed the allegations. The audio file was not only sent to the KBF but also around many in the basketball community.
Rachel says she was inspired to speak out by recent events, which brought memories of her abuse flooding back.
“If it is something that is going to set Kenyan basketball free, why not?” she explained. “I need to save others, and I need to save myself. I am doing something that is taking me through a healing process.”
She says she did not make a report at the time as she did not think she would be believed, while opining that many others have also failed to do so because they fear losing their place in their teams.
The BBC has received testimony from three other women who say they suffered either abuse or attempted abuse while in their teens.
“We were so young that you could not explain yourself – nobody would listen to you at that time. They would think you are lying,” said one.
‘Stop Sexual Harassment’
At the same time as police were conducting their investigation, a petition created to “Stop Sexual Harassment” in Kenya appeared online with the KBF itself accused of turning a “blind eye” to it.
The petition has gathered 2,000 signatures at the time of publication.
When asked how it responded to claims it had overlooked and “enabled” abuse dating back 15 years, the KBF told the BBC it condemned any “contravention of [Kenya’s] Sexual Offences Act in the strongest terms possible”.
“As a show of our commitment and readiness to cooperate with the authorities, we have issued a circular calling upon any female athlete who has information about any action towards the contravention of this Act to get in touch with the Ministerial Committee set up to investigate this matter,” it added.
In July, the Kenyan government createdexternal-link a Committee on Gender Welfare in Sports with the aim of providing appropriate support to female athletes in the country’s national teams.
The Sports Ministry also called upon “athletes who may be affected to report incidents of abuse or harassment” to the committee, whose findings have yet to be made public.
The captain of Kenya’s senior women’s basketball team said she fully supported the new measures.
“It is a sensitive topic, but it is high time it is being highlighted,” Rose Ouma, who says she has been unaffected, told BBC Sport Africa.
“Now that it is being brought out, it means that our girls, us as women, are getting the attention that we need so that it will not be a cycle that keeps happening over and over again.
“It is not just in sport, it is in societyexternal-link so it is high time it is dealt with. The girls who have been victims need help to come out psychologically, physically and emotionally.”
“For those who have been victimised, we need such people to come out so we know what the unsafe places are – so that we can make others aware.”
In Mali, seven members of the country’s basketball federation have been suspended by basketball’s governing body Fiba following the publication of last week’s report.
The investigation concluded that Mali’s federation covered up abuse conducted by its own staff, with the former junior women’s team coach, Amadou Bamba, currently in jail awaiting trial for offences he denies.
Relying on testimony from 31 witnesses, with a further 22 refusing to talk, the report cleared Fiba president Hamane Niang of neglecting the abuse while he ran Mali’s federation from 1999 until 2007.