I snapped this photo in 2008 at a rural, Western Kenya school near the Ugandan border.

The school had taken in these girls, many under 10 years of age, as they literally ran from surrounding villages. First ten, then 15, then 20 and finally over 60 brave girls sought refuge at the school, escaping early marriage and female mutilation rituals. These were the first girls from these villages to stand and say, “NO” to these practices. The first also to say,”YES” to themselves – their bodies and their minds.

This photo came to mind last week while watching the endless reruns of the now infamous video that, when confronted about its content at the second presidential debate, were brushed off as just”locker room talk.”.

What’s the connection with the Kenya story?

There is, in my mind, no difference between degrading, verbal bragging about sexual exploits and the centuries old cultural traditions which are rooted in the belief that girls and women are property and subject to the whims of men.

What is different, however, is that far more positive progress is being made in this Kenyan community to rethink these cultural practices than in our country’s culture which laughs at or gives a “pass” to what the so-called “locker room” comments exemplify.

In this rural Kenyan instance, the school took initiatives to set things right between the girls and their families. The core of this exchange is reconciliation.

Mothers, who have had to look the other way in silence, as their daughter were pre-sold into early marriages for a few goats or cattle, came crying to the school, seeking their daughters’ forgiveness. Fathers, and intended spouses of the girls, began accepting the rights these girls possess, by law, to self-determination, education and having charge of their own bodies.

Compare these strides to mindsets that see no need for apologies, acknowledgement of the hurts these actions and talk cause, and, especially would never see reconciliation as a necessary step in healing the pain and restoring relationships.

During my days as a print reporter, I had the privilege of interviewing Professor Anita Hill on a speaking tour. She made history by being willing, though reluctantly so, to stand up and testify, under extreme cruel attempts at character assassination, for daring to expose the celebrity nominee,  now Supreme Court Justice, Clarence Thomas.

She opened a national discussion on  workplace sexual harassment that made its way from the boardrooms to the bedrooms of our country.

Now, decades later…here we are again…we are having a national discussion about harassment and what amounts to the”sexual bulling” of girls and women from the military to the marketplace, from institutions of “higher learning” to our homes.

Some men have learned about sexual harassment the hard way. It’s called jail time. Most of us keep our thoughts to ourselves, though some also still rely on the “blame the victim” defense when accused of such actions.

But, now, we all need to take this opportunity to deal honestly with ourselves.

I have two grown daughters and three younger boys, two grand daughters and a grand son. My question is not only, “What kind of world will they grow up in, regarding such matters?” My deeper question is, “What am I doing and saying to model decency and respect for everyone.”

Today’s spelling lesson for this “teachable moment” in our nation, is “R.E.S.P.E.C.T” How to show it and how to speak it and how to speak out when we see or hear dis-respect!

And, let’s not forget that when such instances occur, we can all learn from that small, remote village in Kenya…how to apologize and reconcile.

The Unlikely Student

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