NAIROBI, KENYA – Mary Nyambura, 29, was walking home from work late one evening in 2001 when a group of eight men gang-raped her for being a lesbian.
Nyambura says they told her they wanted her to know how it felt to be with a man. They carried the 19-year-old to a secluded place in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital.
They tore off her clothes and raped her in turns. They then beat her up and left.
“I felt so hopeless that I couldn’t gather enough strength to walk home,” she says. “I stayed there the entire night.”
Nyambura had just moved to Nairobi from her village in Rift Valley province. With the help of her brother, she had started a small business digging up stones in a nearby quarry to sell to construction companies. She says she used to join the men she hired in loading the heavy stones onto lorries, which sparked questions about her sexuality.
“The men at the quarry would ask me if I was really a woman since I was always dressed in roomy pants and shorts,” says Nyambura, whose dreadlocks fall to her shoulders. “I also used to turn down their sexual advances. One day, they told me they’d try to find out if I’m really a woman, but I didn’t take them seriously. I wish I did because I suspect they are the ones who attacked me that night.”
She didn’t report the case to the police, so no investigation or arrests were made.
Nyambura also didn’t go to hospital, even after she started having nausea two months later. She says she was depressed.
One day, she accompanied her sister to the hospital for an immunization for her baby. There, she saw a voluntary counseling and testing center.
“I saw a VCT and decided to find out my HIV status,” she says. “The nurse advised me to get a pregnancy test as well.”
Her face shows little emotion as she recalls the test results.
“They both came out positive,” she says.
She gave birth a few months later to a boy, who was HIV-negative. She says the joy of raising her son, who is now 10 years old, has transformed her life.
“When I held him in my hands, I cried, not out of pain but because of joy,” she says. “He gave me a reason to live and move on with life.”
Nyambura now works as a volunteer with Minority Women in Action, a community-based organization that advocates for the rights of women in Kenya who identify as lesbian, bisexual, transgender or intersex.
But life took another dive in August 2011 when Nyambura was gang-raped again.
She and a friend were waiting to take a bus home in Westlands, a neighborhood in Nairobi, at about 8 p.m. when thugs emerged. The women tried to run away, but the men caught Nyambura’s friend and she decided not to leave her behind.
Nyambura was wearing a T-shirt from her organization that said, “Proudly lesbian” and “Africa stand up against homophobia.” She says the thugs taunted