Only Rape Survivors (Like Me) Can Truly Understand What Other Victims Have Gone Through

In 2002, I was car-jacked and raped. Traumatized and shaking, I remembered the advice of a family friend when I was growing up — that if I was ever raped, I should report it straight away.

But the police turned me away. They didn’t want to know.

I attended counseling, but I couldn’t cope with life so I turned to coping mechanisms in a bid to numb the pain. I used alcohol and casual sex in failed attempts to make me feel loved and desired, rather than brutalized and worthless in the eyes of men. The rape, and the lack of help or channels to talk about it in conservative Kenyan society, nearly destroyed me.

Then I began to wonder.

It occurred to me that if I, as a middle-class woman, couldn’t get the help I needed, then how much worse must it be for poor, isolated or uneducated Kenyan women who have experienced this type of gender-based violence? So in 2005 I set up the Wangu Kanja Foundation, because I couldn’t stand the thought of so many thousands of Kenyan women not even knowing they had the right to stand up for themselves.

I wanted to use my experience to inform and influence the kind of mechanisms and services we need in this country. Only survivors of that experience can truly understand what other victims have gone through. Since then, we’ve helped thousands of women.

Some have children born as the result of rape. When we first see them, they can’t love their child because of their ordeal. We provide counseling one to one, in groups of survivors, and as a family. I’m so happy to see now that many of those women are developing a loving bond with their children, powerfully overcoming their experience. We are building a network of survivors and we are training some of those women to pass on those lessons. And we are teaching women both to understand what laws are there to help them gain justice, how to access them and how to generate their own income from existing and simple skills, such as making peanut butter and weaving baskets. That way, women from poorer backgrounds are not reliant on a man for their livelihood while they are also dealing with their trauma.

In the end, I opted not to pursue my case legally because of the stigma and discrimination that comes with sexual violence and the shame that comes with it. I understand how a person feels when they have been raped — the fear, rejection, shame and condemnation, so I know how important it is that survivors get comprehensive care and support.

I spent years entangled in a complex fight to get my case recorded and properly addressed so I know how important it is that survivors have help through that. My foundation has set up a helpline that women can call to report a rape. We then connect the woman to the healthcare workers and paralegals in their area who can accompany them to medical examinations and help submit the medical report (Post Rape Care form) to the police, which is needed to take the perpetrator to court. Our legal advisors help follow the case through. We are going to scale this up, in partnership with Safaricom, one of Kenya’s biggest mobile-network providers, to include a text service that women can use to alert us of an attack.

The reporting of sexual gender-based violence in Kenya is still very low. For example, in 2014 the International Center for Transitional Justice reported very high incidences of rape and sexual violence in the 2007-2008 post-election violence that swept across Kenya. The worst cases happened in Nairobi’s Kibera and Mathare slums, where hundreds of women suffered horrific violence, yet only 31 survivors were willing to talk about the experience with the official Commission set up to hear evidence. The Commission heard these women feared retaliation, feared the police and didn’t believe anything would be done. So using mobile technology provides a friendly, discreet and dignified way forward.

Our successes show what can be done with even a crumb of effort and funding. But we’re still small, so our foundation has focused on Nairobi. But when Kenya signs up to the new Sustainable Development Goals in September, Goal 5 — the requirement to end all violence against women and girls — our example must be given due prominence. Most Kenyans have a mobile phone, so our reporting service could easily go national and encourage women, whether rich or poor, rural or urban, to report an attack immediately. Counseling is an expensive business, but we have worked with survivors whose healing process was helped by their decision to train up and work with us. They are empowered to help others and spread the knowledge about the means to get oneself redress.

I call not only on Kenya to use these means to respond to Sustainable Development Goal 5, but equally, to all Kenyan women to act, to speak up and learn their rights — not their place — and to be fearless.

Wangu Kanja will speak about her work and experiences in London on September 10 at ActionAid’s ‘Celebrating Fearless Women.’ To find out more about the Fearlesscampaign, go to

Follow Wangu Kanja on Twitter at @KanjaWangu.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post, “What’s Working: Sustainable Development Goals,” in conjunction with the United Nations’Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The proposed set of milestones will be the subject of discussion at the UN General Assembly meeting on Sept. 25-27, 2015 in New York. The goals, which will replace the UN’s Millennium Development Goals(2000-2015), cover 17 key areas of development — including poverty, hunger, health, education, and gender equality, among many others. As part of The Huffington Post’s commitment to solutions-oriented journalism, this What’s Working SDG blog series will focus on one goal every weekday in September. This post addresses Goal 5.

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