Sexual violence in Kenya: ‘To the police, rape wasn’t a crime’
Wangu Kanja was a victim of sexual violence, she is now using her experience to remove stigma and help survivors access psychological and legal support.
In 2002 I was travelling back from work in Nairobi when I was carjacked and raped at gunpoint; I was 27. One man started telling me to undress and I said I can’t do it, until he removed his gun, gave me a bullet and told me to decide whether I want to live or to die. Those were the only two choices that I had.
After the incident I went to report what happened to the police, but I was not taken seriously. Sexual violence is justified and condoned in Kenya
most of the time. Our culture does not allow people to discuss sexual issues openly, and it’s difficult for many people to handle sexual violence in an appropriate way.
The police reported the incident not as a rape, but as robbery with violence. They wouldn’t speak of the rape because to them it wasn’t a crime. But it’s a huge problem in Kenya
. A 2010 national survey
(pdf) suggested that 32% of girls experienced sexual violence before becoming adults.
I couldn’t address what had happened to me because I did not have access to psychological support, and the stigma is so huge that people don’t know how to react. That’s why many people decide to shut down and deal with it the best way they know how. I fell into depression for two years, using alcohol as a coping mechanism.
It has taken me over 10 years to heal. I underwent counselling, and in 2005 I set up the Wangu Kanja Foundation
so I could use my experience to help women, girls and men who have gone through sexual violence to access comprehensive care and support including medical, psychological and legal services. We create a safe space for women and give them that platform where they know they can talk about their experiences and nobody is going to judge them.
I am trying to make violence against women a social issue in Kenya, to make people understand that it impacts everyone: if a woman or girl in your life is affected then it means you are affected directly, or indirectly.
At the foundation, woman learn new skills including making peanut butter to encourage them to be financially independent. Photograph: Georgina Goodwin/Action Aid
People are now opening up by discussing sexual issues – not as many as we would want, but we have started the conversation.
Kenya is very patriarchal so it is important to build the capacity of women to become financially independent in order to reduce their vulnerability. At the foundation we make peanut butter, baskets, ornaments, and jewellery. With these resources, women can use their skills to protect themselves: you do not need to stay in an abusive relationship because you’re not able to look after yourself.
But ultimately, many women still die in silence because this country doesn’t offer a safe environment to speak about their ordeal.
Everyone looks at me as someone who has gone through a rape ordeal and has healed, but they assume I got there by a miracle. They don’t know that it was a process. So I help them understand that you can recover, but doing so is a conscious decision you have to make. Regardless of what you’ve gone through, your life can change and you don’t need to look at yourself through the lenses of other people. You need to affirm yourself as an individual instead of waiting for others to affirm you.
Wangu Kanja is founder and executive director of the Wangu Kanja Foundation. In September she spoke in London at Action Aid’s Celebrating Fearless Womenconference.
As told to Naomi Larsson.
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