Interview: Using my ordeal to bring hope
Wangu Kanja is a survivor of sexual violence who set up the Wangu Kanja Foundation in Kenya in 2005.
Please tell us about your organisation and what it does.
The Wangu Kanja Foundation works towards addressing sexual violence: prevention, protection and response. But our broader vision is to have a society that is safe and free from any sort of violence.
Have you seen any changes in the way sexual violence is dealt with in Kenya since you began your work?
We have created awareness around sexual violence, so that more people are reporting their cases. But that does not mean we have put an end to it yet.
One of the big challenges is stigma and discrimination. Survivors face a lot of stigma from their family and community, making them less likely to speak out. The process of reporting a case is also quite complicated: you have to present yourself to the hospital, to the police station, and then, when the police have investigated your case, to the judiciary. We need to make this process easier and less stressful for survivors.
How can we break down stigma against survivors?
We need to start having open conversations at all levels of society about sexual violence. It is still seen as a private issue. We have to help people understand that if one person is affected, everyone else is affected, directly or indirectly.
We must also shift the blame from the victim to the perpetrator. The first question most people ask is, ‘How were you dressed?’ or ‘Did you provoke them?’ People need to recognise that it is never the survivor’s fault. Sexual violence can happen to anyone at any time, however cautious you have been.
How do you raise awareness of sexual violence?
We hold community dialogues, use community radio stations and meet with political leaders to talk about sexual violence. We also have an SMS helpline where we send messages to people’s phones about how to report sexual violence and receive care and support.
When someone contacts the SMS helpline, a trained worker will call them back and explore their needs. If the person needs medical help, we will link them up with a medical consultation. If they need help reporting a crime at the police station, we will find an appropriate person nearby to accompany them. We also have a community paralegal who helps survivors go through the court process.
In addition, we have set up a national Survivors of Sexual Violence Network. This is made up of 47 networks around the country, so that each county has survivors speaking out about the issues that affect them.
What sort of changes is the network of survivors calling for?
We want to make sure the government provides specific budgets for services to prevent and respond to sexual violence. This includes providing counselling, shelters, medical assistance and a gender crimes unit for the proper investigation, documentation and prosecution of crimes. Government departments are now having conversations with us about how best to address sexual violence.
What advice would you give to survivors of sexual violence who want to help other survivors?
You can use your experience to help other people, but make sure you go through a proper healing process first, such as counselling, art therapy or dance therapy. Otherwise, when you start hearing the stories of other survivors, you may be traumatised all over again. Healing is a process and takes time, but it is possible.
Wangu Kanja is a graduate of Tearfund’s Inspired Individuals programme and the founder and Executive Director of the Wangu Kanja Foundation.
If you are in Kenya and need help regarding SGBV, you can contact Wangu’s SMS helpline by texting HELP to 21094.