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Interview: Wangu Kanja, women’s rights campaigner

09 October 2015

‘Our culture actually helps to make women vulnerable’

We are working to restore dignity to women who have suffered from sexual or gender-based violence. We have five programmes: education, access to comprehensive care and support, restorative justice, advocacy, and restorative freedom. We make sure women do not become vulnerable by making sure that they are financially able to take care of their needs.


I was inspired to start the work by a challenging personal experience. In 2002 I was carjacked, and raped at gunpoint. I was deeply traumatised, but was unable to access any help or professional services. The people who I thought would help me most turned me away. This, in time, made me determined to help others, and I set up the Wangu Kanja Foundation.


I had to go through a series of counselling sessions, and a self-renewing programme. It has been a process with different interventions.


What was most difficult was the perception that people have about you. People change the way they look at you when you have gone through any form of sexual violence or gender-based violence — especially when they look through the lens of traditional culture in Kenya.


Sex issues and sexual violence are topics that people don’t discuss publicly. People only have this conversation behind closed doors, in darkness. When you have gone through such an experience, people tend to see you as immoral, assuming that you’re a bad person, and that kind of thing.


What helps most is the people who are willing to stand with you when you are recovering from this.


As far as causes, people live in a very traditional culture, which fuels men and women to be violated. Our culture actually helps to make women vulnerable. There is a social construction of who is a man and who is a woman that makes it easier for women to be violated. The enforcement of laws and policing is lacking to protect women and girls. If a crime is committed against a woman, then it is not seen as a crime. Any physical form of violence, sexual or otherwise, is justified and condoned. In Kenya, most of the political seats and places of power go to men; so they tend to look down on women.


We work through a number of non-denominational churches. They talk to men, trying to teach them to treat one another with love. But it is a work in progress. The Church is not 100 per cent embracing this yet. The same culture and tradition is practised by people who go to church. It will take time for us to get people away from that state of mind — of believing and living by traditional culture.


If I could change one thing to prevent sexual violence, I would change people’s attitudes and behaviour — so they change the way they think about women and girls. The women themselves actually excuse it when someone violates them. The way people think about violence is the one thing I would want to change.


For me, a human being is a human being, whatever they have gone through. You’re supposed to treat them with love, and that is the minimum of what you should do. Working towards improving who you are takes a lot of energy. You have to keep reminding people that we are all equal, and we need to love each other. You must love yourself before you can love others: then you will be able to do anything for your neighbour.


I was brought up in a normal family of five. Our parents were able to provide for everything: schooling, shelter, clothing, and food. You could say we live an average life. I have one brother and three sisters, but I like to keep my family out of the limelight.


I am happiest when I see somebody who wanted to give up and now they have hope. I feel relaxed when everything we are working towards is falling into place. Also, being around friends: the Inspired Individuals initative reminds me that I am not working on this on my own. Challenges that I am facing can be similar to what others are facing, too.


I enjoy listening to jazz music, or instrumental music, because they are both soothing.


When things don’t work out, I just take a walk. I rarely hit the roof. We weren’t supposed to have started our project; so we have been put under pressure. The things we wanted to do had to be facilitated by someone. I have to figure out how to be nice when talking to people in charge of projects and programmes. I don’t want to put the other organisation in a position where they feel like I’m telling on them, or I’m saying things I shouldn’t.


The Tearfund Inspired Individuals group have been great: Sean, Gary, John, Tony, Lena, Ari, and Labeem, also my other friend Jessica — the fact that they share the same experiences is a source of encouragement. They help me to understand challenges that I am facing, as they have gone through similar ones. If I am going through fund-raising challenges, for example, people from other organisations have gone through the same thing.


I pray for wisdom, knowledge, and understanding, because I tend to have to make tough decisions. So I want to make decisions that are right, and won’t affect people negatively. It is better to be safe than sorry: people might want to compromise your quality, or the standards you have already set. I pray for integrity to stand by the decision I have made.


If I were locked in a church, I would choose to be with the current President of Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta, so that I could inform and educate him on the consequences of sexual and gender-based violence. I would focus on sexual violence, as it destroys an individual and takes away their dignity. If we do not address past and present injustices, then we will not be able to break the cycle of violence.


Wangu Kanja was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.



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