Gender Defenders are courageous community volunteers, trained by ActionAid, who stand up to sexual and gender-based violence in Kenya. It's a name they came up with themselves, and one they bear with pride.
From helping survivors reach hospital to navigating the legal system, each one – women and men – plays a vital role in preventing and responding to violence. Some are mums whose daughters have been raped. Others have personal experiences, like Alice, whose story I'd like to share with you.
(Warning: This blog includes a story of rape so may be distressing to some readers.)
A day in the life of a Gender Defender
Alice, 45, lives and works in Mukuru slum, in the east of Nairobi, Kenya’s bustling capital. Despite her busy schedule as a mother and a business owner, Alice spends many hours volunteering to help girls who have been abused.
A typical day for Alice starts at 4.30am when she gets up to cook breakfast for her two children and grandson and clean the house before opening her shop. By 8am she’s selling vegetables in Nairobi city. At 11am she is tired and hungry. But Alice doesn’t rest yet. She goes to the office of ActionAid partner, the Wangu Kanja Foundation, to volunteer as a Gender Defender.
The office is home to an innovative rape helpline set up together by ActionAid and the Wangu Kanja Foundation to help survivors of sexual violence access medical, psychosocial and legal support. By sending a simple text to the helpline number, anyone can report a case of sexual violence.
After a case has been reported, Gender Defenders like Alice swing into action to provide on-the-spot support, ensuring survivors get timely medical attention and co-ordinating legal advice, counselling and police reports.
Sometimes Alice takes girls to hospital and stays at their side into the early hours to make sure they get the specialist care they need, while friends and neighbours look after her own children.
What does it mean to be a Gender Defender?
When asked what being a Gender Defender means to her, Alice said: “Being a Gender Defender is a calling. It’s volunteer work. And it’s from the bottom of your heart, because it has a lot of challenges, and ups and downs — you smile you laugh, you cry, you sympathise. It’s a lot. And it means a lot to me.”
For Alice, it’s more than just a job, because she knows what these girls have been through. Growing up in poverty, Alice’s divorced mother was often forced to leave home to search for work. As a result, Alice experienced abuse at the hands of men who took advantage of her vulnerable position.
“I was a victim of abuse,” she says. “No one should go through what I have experienced. That is why I fight for their rights – child’s rights, women’s rights, even men’s rights, because at times you find even men are violated. But for the children, especially for girls, it is the worst. Men keep abusing young girls.”
Justice for survivors
For Alice, making sure perpetrators are punished is crucial. “When somebody is sexually abused,” she explains, “they lose their dignity. This person needs justice so that maybe they will feel at least something was done for them.”
36-year-old mother Olive is one of many women who’s been supported by Alice. While Olive’s eight-year-old daughter, Grace, was out playing, she was raped by a 65-year-old man. When neighbours heard noises, they broke into the man’s house and rescued Grace.
Mum Olive remembers: “When I heard my daughter had been raped I was so scared I couldn’t move. I felt a horrible pain in my stomach.”
“My daughter cannot speak or hear,” Olive continues, “and I think that is why the man targeted her – because she could not tell anyone what happened. My neighbours called a local Gender Defender, named Alice. She took us to hospital and reported everything to the police.”
Thanks to Alice, the perpetrator was arrested and has received a sentence of life imprisonment for his crimes.
Alice remembers: “We got the man who raped the young girl jailed for good, so that is one of our success stories.”
Grace, now 13, is deeply traumatised by her experience, often suffering with convulsions when she recalls the rape. However, she is doing well at a specialised unit at school and receives regular counselling from the Wangu Kanja Foundation.
“I am very grateful to Wangu Kanja and ActionAid for supporting my family,” Olive says. “Through them I have met other mothers whose children have been attacked. Now I do not feel alone.”
“My community is waking up”
Alice is one of many Gender Defenders speaking out about violence, transforming the lives of survivors and giving them a way forward. She is also helping address the root cause of this violence – deeply embedded gender inequality.
Alice says: “I speak at many forums, and sometimes the chiefs come. I talk about abuse and girls’ rights. I can see my community is waking up and they are learning about their rights.
“I’ve become the voice of the voiceless. I feel courageous and I feel a very special person, because I know there are some people who are there looking for me and they know I have the solution. And it is true, I have some of the solution.”
Donate to our Not This Girl appeal today
A third of girls in Kenya experience sexual violence during childhood — and of these, just 10% receive any professional help.
That’s why ActionAid has launched an appeal to help end exploitation and abuse of girls in Kenya, by supporting women’s groups who help survivors get access to justice, and the support services they need to rebuild their lives.
The thought of girls like Grace and her mum Olive having to suffer alone in silence is heartbreaking. But women like Alice are an inspiration, because they are leading the way for a fairer, safer, just society for women and girls.
By donating to ActionAid’s Not This Girl appeal, you could help expand the incredible work of Gender Defenders like Alice, and every donation will be matched by the UK government, pound for pound.