Sunday 30 November 2008

We Can end All Violence against Women – Kenya

We Can was launched in Kenya on 27 November at the KICC, site of the 1985 World Women's Conference. The We Can Kenya alliance had arranged 1.500 chairs in a spacious tent, hoping for at least 1.000 visitors. But soon after the opening, another 500 chairs had to be brought in! Women and men of all ages and walks of life, from all over the country, came together to show their determination to end violence against women (VAW). We Can makes it clear that everybody, women and men, can and must take responsibility to stop violence in their own lives, in their own communities. The inclusive character of the campaign was underlined by the presence of two interpreters, who translated speeches and performances into sign language for a group of people with hearing impairments, seated near the front. It is a little-known fact that women with disabilities are at greater risk of VAW than able-bodied women. Overall, some 50% of Kenyan women have experienced VAW: one in two.

Between the speeches, youth groups and other community-based organisations (CBO) from Nairobi, Central Kenya, Western Kenya, Nyanza and the Rift Valley staged impressive performances. Although their messages did not always meet the highest standards of gender sensitivity, the performers seemed committed to the cause of ending VAW. We Can focuses on everyday physical, emotional and economical violence, something everyone can do something about. It is up to the individual change maker to decide on the actions she will take. She or he: there has been an overwhelming response from men who recognise that VAW must end. In rural areas, where men hardly ever carry bags (you have a wife for carrying things), men have been seen carrying the black We Can campaign bag with pride. Some men I met at the event said they had never thought about gender roles before getting involved in We Can. One of them told me, “I have two little children, a son and a daughter. Now I realise that even small gestures deepen inequality. So I have stopped saying boys don't cry!”

The national launch has been complemented by a host of more local activities organised by CBOs. In Mathare, male youth activists cross-dressed in rural women's clothes led through a rich programme featuring, inter alia, community theatre, the Kenya Prisons Brass Band, young rappers, a girls' dance competition and speeches by the North Mathare administrative Chief, a woman, and MP Elisabeth Ongoro. I counted at least 1.500 spectators. The crowd, as well as the Chief, enthusiastically followed the 4-hour event - even though someone sitting behind us mumbled that the exorbitant price rise for maize meal gave her bigger headaches than VAW. Charred houses reminded us of massive post-election violence that had swept through Mathare early this year, with rape being used as a weapon.
The attendance in Kibera, unlike in Mathare (both are Nairobi slum areas), was predominantly female. Here, too, brass bands and theatre groups played, the acting administrative Chief – a woman, again, gave a highly supportive speech. The special thing was a short women's football match organised by the Kibera Women for Peace and Fairness, watched with wild enthusiasm.

Some of the change makers who had attended the Nairobi launch went to Magadi, a rural Maasai area, on the following day to watch a performance by a local youth group criticising harmful traditional practice. At the end, an older woman stood up with a message of support – a powerful gesture in a society where older people's opinions carry great weight. I sat next to Basilica, a rap musician from Kajiado, a Maasai area. Unfortunately, she was not on the programme of the national launch – only men and boys rapped.

Challenging gender stereotypes remains, well, a challenge even in events promoting gender equality. At least the KICC did provide for an oft-neglected women's practical need: toilet cabins! Overall, the launch and the many community events can be considered a huge success. This is what 16 days of gender activism should look like: community-led, community-based events which produce powerful momentum. Two visitors from the We Can campaign in South Asia - Mriganko from Bangladesh and Shamshar from India - extended huge compliments to the Kenya alliance, who seems well prepared to reach out to millions of people over the coming years. (The woman on the photograph is Stella Maranga, Oxfam GB Regioanl Gender Advisor based in Nairobi)