Wangu Kanja is something of a pioneer. Years before the #MeToo movement, she was speaking out about sexual violence in the tough, urban context of Kenya's capital, Nairobi. Wangu was carjacked and raped in 2002 and when she went to report it to the police, she found they would not take her seriously.
From this knockback, she realised that many of the poorest women in Kenya don't know what to do after surviving sexual assault - and never get the support and justice they deserve. This is made worse by stigma, shame and a culture of silence that stop women from asking for help. She decided things needed to change.
So, Wangu founded the Wangu Kanja Foundation, now a partner of ActionAid, to give survivors of sexual violence access to medical, psychosocial and legal support.
In 2015, a group of ActionAid supporters funded a pilot project in Mukuru, a Nairobi slum with some of the highest rates of violence against women and girls in Kenya.
“We were looking for an innovative way to address or report cases of sexual and gender-based violence so that we were able to support the survivor immediately,” says Wangu.
ActionAid set up a free text service enabling people to report cases of violence they have experienced and to be connected to essential services, such as medical care and legal advice. “Once a person sends ‘HELP’ to 21094,” Wangu describes, “the system operators are alerted to call them back and take them through a process to get more information about the case. And any information they share is treated as confidential.”
The service, which also sends awareness-raising messages, has already handled over 500 cases ranging from domestic violence to rape, and has over 5,000 subscribers. “People are always scared to report cases, so this service has given them an opportunity to secretly reach out for help,” Wangu explains.
The data collected is also analysed and used to prove to policy makers that there is a problem with violence that needs to be urgently addressed. This is crucial, as Wangu explains: “Every single time we go to government they’re always asking, ‘so what are the statistics?’ If you don’t have numbers, then people don’t listen to you.”
Meet Irene who helps manage the helpline
Irene has been volunteering for the helpline project for the last two years. She says:
“As soon as a case is reported, the platform sends an alert to the system operator’s phone. I can then immediately open the system and look at details of the case. I call them back, and explain the steps to follow. If he or she is nearby, I ask him or her to come to the office, but if they are further away, I refer them to the nearest place where they can get help.”
The system also has a google map that plots the geographical areas where the cases occur. It is then possible to know how many cases are reported from which area and use the information for policy advocacy on service provision with the county and national governments.
“After referring them,” Irene continues, “I’ll continue calling them to check how the case is going and updating the case progress on the system. If it’s a rape case, for example, we make sure they go to the hospital.”
“Then we have paralegals in the office, who will look at the case. They make sure the case goes to the court and they help to do follow up. They help the survivor to get the dates on which he or she’s supposed to go to the courts. They help until they see a case is through. We also have a counsellor who counsels every Friday.”
Irene is herself a survivor of childhood sexual abuse — perpetrated by her family’s maid. “The maid used to threaten me, so I was scared. But I think if I had that knowledge, maybe I would have reported the case. Coming to the Wangu Kanja Foundation has helped me heal. I can talk about it freely.”
Reflecting on the helpline service, Irene says: “Through creating awareness, I think more people are now reporting cases. It has really helped people who are scared of the perpetrator or find it difficult to report the case because they fear being noticed, to get help. I think it has created a platform where people who are far away (we receive cases from Nakuru and Kisumu, which are several hours away) can feel free to report a case and get help.”
Meet Anastasia — who volunteers as a paralegal
Anastasia volunteers for the project as a paralegal. “I know what to do in case a survivor comes to our office. The first thing for us to do is take the person to the health centre, where they get first aid and I go with them to give support.”
One girl Anastasia helped was just eight years old when a man raped her. Anastasia co-ordinated with organisations in Nairobi to ensure that the girl received the support she needed, including getting the perpetrator jailed and helping the girl go back to school.
“It has been a process for her but thank God the man is in jail to this day. So, for us that’s a success because there’s no way he will be coming out any time soon.”
Our #NotThisGirl appeal
Last week we launched our #NotThisGirl appeal to help keep girls safe from sexual exploitation and abuse. Patience, pictured below, is one of many mothers who has benefited from the helpline project after her young daughter was raped. After reporting what happened she received support from volunteers like Irene and Anastasia, who also made sure the case proceeded through the courts.
Patience says: “Wangu Kanja has helped so many people. I am happy that the Foundation is here. Before it [the rape] happened, I knew the Foundation existed. I just never thought I would come.”
With your support, we can reach even more women like Patience and their daughters — and support local women like those at Wangu Kanja Foundation to stop abuse and make sure survivors are heard.
Give today and your donation will be doubled by the UK government as part of our UK Aid Match appeal.
With funds from the UK government, we will expand the helpline service to three other counties with very high levels of violence against girls — Kilifi, Homabay, and Garissa — to reach thousands more women and girls.
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Photos: Karin Schermbrucker/ActionAid