Fearless woman: Wangu Kanja’s battle for women’s rights

Wangu Kanja

Wangu Kanja, founder and executive director of the Wangu Kanja Foundation, which supports survivors of sexual violence, speaks to Amy Hall about her work and inspiration.

Every other weekend Wangu Kanja does at least seven hours of hiking in the Kenyan countryside, but when I meet her in London she has a hip injury and hasn’t been able to go for a while. 

‘Right now I’m really struggling because that helps me to offload most of the things that I face every day. It’s hard if you don’t have people who understand where you’re coming from.’

A survivor of a ruthless rape and carjacking in 2002, she went on to set up the Wangu Kanja Foundation a few years later, inspired by her experience during and after the attack.  

The Foundation aims to be a ‘centre of excellence’ for sexual violence awareness and prevention in Kenya and supports survivors and their families medically, psychologically and legally. It also helps survivors to become more financially independent, something Kanja says is key in a patriarchal society where women are more vulnerable to poverty and have less access to resources such as property and loans. 

‘You can’t make your own decisions [as a woman]. Most of the leadership – political leaders or management structures are mostly men who make decisions on behalf of men,’ she explains.

‘One of the challenges that we’re having is the socialisation of the boy child. When you’re growing up you’re told to be a man but they don’t define for you how to be a man.’

She thinks the economic cost of sexual violence could be a good way to approach increasing political will, but also warns not to rely too heavily on statistics as a benchmark.

A survey, published in 2014 by the National Crime Research Centre, found that only 15.2 per cent of women and 16.7 per cent of men who responded and had ever experienced sexual violence, had reported it, or had someone else report it. 

Kanja says a lot of work needs to be done to improve the approach of Kenya’s police force to sexual violence survivors. ‘The environment is not conducive enough for people to come and report it. This means that the cases that are reported at the police station are not a true reflection.

‘Someone might rape you out there but when you go to report you find him at the desk. What do you do? So no matter how we want to look at it, for me the bottom line is one rape is too many.’

Reducing the stigma around sex and sexual violence remains one of the Foundation’s biggest challenges. The way Kanja was treated after her attack is what galvanised her into action; her middle class background with access to education, visits abroad and media did not protect her from being shamed after she spoke out about being attacked, including being shouted at on the street. 

‘I’m thinking if I’m going through that, what is the woman at the grassroots level going through? What would they be able to access, or not access?

‘Sexual violence takes away your dignity and, because it takes away your dignity, it takes away your self-esteem,’ Kanja says. ‘You will try and replace it with coping mechanisms such as alcohol, drugs or being promiscuous. I used alcohol to try and cope but it doesn’t help.’

Kanja thinks part of the solution is to get more people talking about sex in a meaningful way. ‘Right now if you went to Nairobi and called people into a forum then started talking about sex very few people will actually engage in that conversation, most would giggle, laugh and want to get under the table,’ she explains.

‘When I go and talk to my friends who are not working in the same sector they’ll be like “what’s your problem?” They think it’s just sex, what’s the big deal? Then they’ll start blaming women by saying a woman is there to serve the man.’

So how does she keep going? It’s the small changes for the better. 

‘I’ve wanted to give up like a million times. But when a person is in distress, they are threatening to commit suicide, and you talk to them and you keep on convincing them things are going to be better, and they actually start to be better – it gives you hope.’ Kanja’s resolve shows clearly in her eyes. 

‘One life at a time it makes a difference.’

Wangu Kanja is backing ActionAid’s Fearless campaign which raises awareness of violence against women and girls around the world. The have published a report called ‘FEARLESS: Standing with women and girls to end violence target in the SDGs’ which makes recommendations for action by governments, donors and the international community. 

The global 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence runs from 25 November until 10 December. BRIDGE and the Institute of Development Studies will be highlighting work on sexual and gender-based violence, gender, education and militarism – from academic research to blog posts, news and video. Check back to this Storify each day for something new.