Building a movement in a projectized world: Wangu Kanja’s struggle for survivors of sexual violence in Kenya
by Anne Menzel
A few weeks ago, a friend drew my attention to an open letter published by the Women Peacemaker’s Program (WPP) which announced that the organization was closing its doors. WWP was a Dutch NGO based in The Hague with a history of 20 years and a wealth of connections across the globe. Still, to be honest, I had never consciously heard of WPP before my friend alerted me to their final letter. This was in the context of a conversation about a blog post I was planning to write about my recent field research in Nairobi. My friend advised me that I had to read this letter, ‘It talks exactly about the stuff you want to write about.’ She was right.
The following are quotes from WPPs final letter, which was published on 7 December 2017 − during the annual ‘16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence’ campaign, no less.
We increasingly find ourselves in a schizophrenic reality, where on the one hand women’s rights and gender equality activists around the world are facing strong opposition from different sides while on the other hand many in government and donor positions loudly commit to supporting women’s rights and gender equality. Yet their grantmaking increasingly fails to provide an effective financial infrastructure catering directly and sustainably for the women frontliners and feminist pioneers in global South, North, East and West.
When women’s flexible, bottom-up driven, long-term, activist and globally connected movement agenda for social, economic, political and environmental transformation becomes subcontracted into short-term, top-down oriented, isolated project agreements, we should start asking ourselves what kind of accountability we are talking about in these times of global turmoil.
We do not believe in perpetuating an accountability idea that draws on a rigid and linear outlook on social change, and which too often ends up transforming activism into a paper tiger. A complex world needs flexible and daring responses. Current notions of accountability are feeding a dangerous practice of risk avoidance, while also taking critical time away from the real work activists need to focus on.
WPP’s letter highlights many of the mind-twisting constraints and absurdities that national/local NGO workers and activists relayed to me during recent field research on the fight against sexual violence in Sierra Leone and Kenya (see also my earlier post ‘Sexual violence in post-Ebola Sierra Leone: Old problems and new policy priorities’). Not only has funding become painfully scarce. Most civil society organizations, especially in the global South, also rarely have a say in the design and conceptualization of projects that do eventually get funded. Core funding has mostly become a thing of the past, meaning that most organizations lack the capacity to develop their own projects. This is despite a plethora of capacity building training projects, which usually emphasize skills and do not even address broader structural and material constraints. Instead of developing their own projects, many national/local organisations end up competing to become subcontractors who implement projects for NGOs based in the global North. The latter tend to have a number of comparative advantages when it comes to raising funds: often closer links to donors, closer knowledge of donor preferences and priorities, better access to resources to write funding applications accordingly – and altogether better chances of meeting application criteria.
The subcontracting of national/local organizations in the global South has vast consequences. Their struggles, ideas and agendas are made to fit into projects that are considered rational, appropriate and timely according to standards defined by people who are far removed from the contexts in which these projects are to take place. Or, even more worryingly, alternatives that do not match predefined standards become unthinkable even within national/local organizations or are pre-emptively thrown out by obedient subcontractors (see also e.g. Anderl 2016; Obradovic-Wochnik 2018). In any case, the outcome is very much the opposite of any emancipatory politics. There are, of course, people and organizations (in ‘global South, North, East and West’, as it is put in WWP’s final letter) who challenge or even resist these powerful dynamics. The domination exerted by tender procedures, application criteria, logframes, reporting duties etc. is not perfect (see Li 2007, 11-12; Jauhola 2013, 23-24). But it certainly is pervasive to the extent that challenging and resisting it is difficult and, more often than not, holds little chances of success in terms of actually getting ideas funded.
Wangu Kanja’s struggle
This blog post is about one of those admirably stubborn people who try to productively subvert predefined project-making logics. Her name is Wangu Kanja and she and the headquarters of her organization, the Wangu Kanja Foundation, are based in Nairobi. Wangu has been working to attract donor money for her goal of building a movement of – not a project for (!) − survivors of sexual violence in Kenya.
Wangu and I met during my recent field research in February and March 2018. It was my first time in Nairobi (and in Kenya) and Wangu was so kind to introduce me to some of Nairobi’s civil society circles. She also invited me to a number of events that I would have missed without her help. In addition, she patiently answered my many questions about the current situation in the fight against sexual violence, the struggle for reparations (which were recommended in the final report of the Kenyan Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission), relations between government, donors and civil society – and about her own situation, motivation and goals. I suspect that Wangu’s struggle is exemplary of the constraints experienced by many activists across the globe whose visions and ideas do not easily fit into predefined project-making logics. What struck me most is that Wangu deeply shares and commits to the broader principles that are generally considered as characterizing ‘good’ projects (see Krause 2014). She wants to build something that is ‘locally owned’, ‘sustainable’ and delivers tangible results to people in need. But in order to remain true to these principles, she feels that she has to build a movement, not a project. So far, she has not been able to raise donor support for this vision – although she has received some funding to realize fragmented bits of it.
In the following, before I turn to Wangu’s vision, I first locate her struggle within most recent Kenyan history after the 2007/08 post-election violence and also give some background on Wangu’s personal history and her commitment to her cause. It is also noteworthy that her activism bridges the (artificial) divide between conflict-related or ‘exceptional’ sexual violence and ‘everyday’ sexual violence in peacetime: while the former is deemed highly political, the latter is usually treated as non-political deviance. This distinction has its origins in feminist activists’ and academics’ efforts at de-naturalising and politicising sexual violence in war, while at the same time stressing its exceptional harmfulness. These efforts have shaped today’s (nominally ‘global’) Women, Peace and Security agenda and tend to structure donor and government action, civil society engagements and also research on sexual violence – not only in Kenya (see e.g. Eriksson Baaz/Stern 2018). But Wangu’s activism makes no such distinctions; she addresses all ‘types’ of sexual violence as equally harmful and political. Next, I describe Wangu’s vision for a country-wide movement of survivors of sexual violence, based on our conversations and a strategic document with which Wangu hopes to attract and persuade donors.
Political violence, crime and domestic abuse – the private is political
Most readers will at least have heard of the 2007/08 post-election violence that put an international spotlight on sexual violence in Kenya. In late 2007, Kenya’s multiparty elections turned into widespread violence after skewed election results in favour of incumbent President Kibaki. Ensuing protests, riots as well as violent police and militia backlashes followed ethnic patterns as the two major competing political parties, and their presidential candidates were generally held to represent different major ethnic groups and their numerically smaller ethnic allies. Sexual violence against women and men was conducted in opportunistic as well as in systematic and planned manners. Women predominantly suffered rapes while men were subjected to forced ‘circumcisions’, which often resulted in partial amputations of the penis; there were also cases of women who were forcibly ‘circumcised’ (see e.g. Wanyeki 2009; Materu 2015, 48-57). Subsequent national inquires suggested that crimes against humanity had been committed and that ‘those bearing the greatest responsibility’ should be prosecuted by a domestic special tribunal (Waki Commission Report 2008, 472).
Such a tribunal was never established, probably for the simple reason that those in government and high administrative positions who would have had to push towards its establishment were also likely candidates to be prosecuted by it (see Brown and Sriram 2012). Instead, the International Criminal Court initiated investigations which resulted in two cases. The accused were the current Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and his Deputy William Ruto (both in office since 2013), who had stood on opposing sides during the 2007/8 post-election violence. But the ICC eventually withdrew its charges due to lack of evidence, as witnesses had been intimidated and murdered.
This means that survivors of the 2007/8 post-election violence, including survivors of sexual violence, have been left to hope for reparations as the only remaining option for some measure of justice. Reparations were recommended by the controversial Kenyan Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC), which had been established in 2008 and delivered its final report in 2013 (see also Bosire and Lynch 2014). So far, the TJRC’s recommendations have been of little consequence. Some members of some victim groups have been able to successfully pursue litigation cases in Kenyan courts, while others (especially from among the internally displaced) have received politically motivated handouts. But there is no official reparations policy in place and survivors of sexual violence have so far received nothing (skype interview with a member of the National Victims and Survivors Network, 24 April 2018; see also Human Rights Watch 2016).
Civil society organized exhibition at Kenyatta International Conference Centre on the occasion of the International Day of the Right to Truth 2018, © Anne Menzel
In addition, and as is the case across the globe, sexual violence in Kenya has not been confined to political crises and times of coordinated mayhem. Wangu Kanja’s own story attests to this. She was raped during a carjacking in 2002, at a time when this type of assault was rampant in Nairobi. The situation seems to have improved somewhat, but armed robberies and rape are still everyday news items in the capital city. Moreover, sexual and other gender-based forms of violence within families and relationships are extremely pervasive, with women and girls bearing the brunt of this violence. There are no reliable numbers, but local civil society organizations offering donor-funded counselling and referral services to survivors of sexual violence report that they see new cases almost every day (various interviews, March 2018 in Nairobi). It appears that this type of violence cuts across all social strata in all parts of the country, even though poorer and uneducated women and girls are even more vulnerable and prone to suffer prolonged periods of domestic abuse (see e.g. Kimuna and Djamba 2008).
In one of our conversations, Wangu explained to me that she only became an activist after her ordeal but that she had always wanted to do something that would help people in need. When I asked her where she thought this desire came from, she told me that her father had encouraged her to be an empowered person and always to care and have an opinion about what happened in society. I had suspected that Wangu came from a wealthy background and had probably attended university, maybe in Kenya or even abroad. When I revealed my assumptions, Wangu laughed and told me that she only went to high school and that her family was pretty average, not suffering but also not particularly wealthy. In other words, according to her account, Wangu’s desire to ‘do something’ was inspired through personal encouragement within her family; it did not arise from a privileged background and/or from a university degree. After Wangu survived rape, she knew that this was it: she needed to do something for people who had suffered through similar experiences.
Moreover, Wangu is indiscriminate in her activism in that she has not ‘specialized’ in one ‘type’ of sexual violence only. Instead, she pursues something of a holistic approach. In practice, this means that Wangu has been involved in both: in human rights related advocacy which mostly deals with ‘political’ sexual violence and in technical assistance for survivors of ‘everyday’ sexual violence (this is if one wants to apply the widely practiced distinction I mentioned above). Together with other human rights activists and civil society organizations, Wangu has been calling for reparations and she was involved in documenting cases of sexual violence after Kenya’s last general elections in 2017 (see Human Rights Watch 2017). These activities have made her unpopular with the Kenyan government and a target for intimidation. She knows that she is being observed and has become extremely careful, sitting with her eyes fixed on the entrance whenever we met in a busy coffee bar in Hurlingham (a part of Nairobi where many NGO offices are located).
Wangu’s work with survivors of ‘everyday’ sexual violence and domestic abuse is what she is currently getting funding for, mostly from the UK-based international NGO ActionAid. Wangu runs a project in Mukuru, a slum area in eastern Nairobi. Together with a co-worker and several volunteers, she operates an ActionAid supported SMS hotline for reporting violations. Wangu and her team follow up on these reports, accompany survivors to the police station (to make sure that officers do not send them away or demand bribes) and connect survivors with organizations that provide counselling and/or medical aid services. Wangu and her team receive survivors in an office space in Mukuru, which is provided to them free of charge and located within a larger social project, the Ruben Centre run by a Christian organization.
Wangu’s Kanja’s office in Mukuru, © Anne Menzel
There is no doubt that this is important work. But, as Wangu repeatedly stressed, it is a drop in the ocean. So many survivors are not reached and never receive any assistance, let alone justice. This is true within Nairobi and even more so outside Nairobi where there is still less of a support structure. What is needed, according to Wangu, is building a structure that is not or, at least, not completely dependent on donor money and that also has an advocacy component, pushing local and national government authorities to pay attention to the needs of survivors of sexual violence and work towards preventing sexual violence. Fragmented projects are not likely to achieve these broader goals. Instead, Wangu’s vision is that of building a movement of empowered survivors who are committed to helping and training other survivors as well as to working towards broader social change.
Building a survivors’ movement versus piecemeal projects
Wangu’s vision for a survivors’ movement is without a doubt ambitious. She envisions a movement that spreads across the country with connected survivor-activists in each of Kenya’s 47 counties and even in each larger town, maybe one day in each village. These survivors will mostly be people (women and men) who do not do activism as a paid job but as a passion. Very often, they will already be organized in some way. Instead of re-organizing them, they will be encouraged to use their existing networks to assist other survivors in reporting violations to the police and accessing available services, possibly medical aid and/or counselling. They will also be encouraged to mobilize and train fellow survivors so that the movement can spread and more people receive access to knowledge and services. In addition, these activists-survivors will engage local government authorities and civil society and advocate for improved service delivery, access to justice and broader social change. In this way, the movement will make the best of a situation in which most of the scarcely available services for survivors of sexual violence are provided via donor-funded NGO projects – without losing sight of the goal of having permanent and fully domestic structures in place. And even though the movement will be deeply involved in the ‘everyday’ work of assisting survivors in need, it will also keep its eyes on working towards a society that no longer tolerates sexual violence.
This is roughly how Wangu described her vision to me in our various conversations throughout February and March 2018. Wangu has also put a lot of effort into a document that spells out this vision in more standardized ‘donor-friendly’ terms, defining priorities, principles, outcomes, strategic objectives and a ‘theory of change’. This Strategic Plan 2018-2022 was authored by a conglomerate of individuals, networks and organizations under the stewardship of the Wangu Kanja Foundation (Survivors of Sexual Violence in Kenya, 2017: 8).
At the moment, Wangu is looking for funding to get this vision kick-started and to support the envisioned movement during an initial period of learning and connecting. Despite having formulated the donor-friendly professional strategy document, she has not been successful so far. The problem is not only that funding opportunities are generally extremely scarce. Also, despite the streamlined version presented in the strategy document, it is still clear that the vision hardly matches usual project requirements, namely a fixed set of predefined activities over a limited time frame with clearly definable outputs. Instead, the movement is envisioned as an open-ended process that requires a rather substantial initial investment, demands a degree of budgetary flexibility and may still fail to emerge in the envisioned form. But if it succeeds, it will not be a small step but rather a leap forward.
The idea is to begin the process by identifying 30 survivors per each county who are already engaged in doing something for other survivors. These people – with an already established record of commitment to the cause – will then be contacted, familiarized with the idea of a larger movement and offered training in various areas, including legal matters, advocacy and the like (relevant areas for training and other forms of assistance may only emerge and become conceivable during early contacts with prospective movement-activists). These identified survivors will then be encouraged to share their training, experiences and networks with at least ten other potential survivor-activists, e.g. regarding where to get services and which local government authorities may be willing to listen to and support the movement’s cause. In addition, survivor-activists from different parts of the country will have to be brought together for networking and knowledge/experience exchange purposes, ideally not just once but several times so that sustainable contacts can be forged.
But the crux is this: after a possibly costly and not fully calculable/controllable initial period, the movement itself should not require donor funding anymore. Once channels of communication are in place and some common practices as well as a shared identity have been established, the movement should continue and grow on its own. Survivor-activists and organizations within the movement may still partner with international NGOs or decide to apply for outside-funding for specific projects, and they may refer to the movement as an asset when they do so. But – if it works out as envisioned − the movement itself will no longer be donor-dependant.
Wangu repeatedly stressed the importance of freeing activism from donor-dependence. She emphasized that projects were rarely sustainable in Kenya, in the sense that networks and activities usually ended and disappeared as soon as the funding dried up (this was repeated and confirmed in several interviews with activists and professionals in Nairobi’s civil society circles). The professionalization of civil society along with the scarcity of well-paid job opportunities for qualified professionals have created a situation in which many in civil society (not only in Kenya!) move from one job to the next and pursue careers instead of or, at least, equally alongside cherished causes. This is why Wangu wants to rely on survivor-activists who volunteer their time because they deeply believe in the cause of helping other survivors and ending sexual violence. This is a drastic approach in a context where many of those who will be potential movement-activists are desperately struggling to find jobs and can hardly make ends meet or take care of their own survivor needs. But Wangu was adamant that genuine commitment is absolutely necessary to make the movement work.
This drastic approach has also informed Wangu’s own choices. She does not pay herself a salary from the funding she receives for the project in Mukuru and instead survives on consultancies while she tries to push her vision. And, in fact, she has managed to get some funding for fragmented bits in pieces of it – but nothing that would even come close to the initial investment that is needed to make a meaningful start. For example, the writing of the Strategic Plan 2018-2022 was supported by the Urgent Action Fund. And the UN Women office in Kenya recently signalled its interest in possibly funding a single workshop with one survivor from each county.
Wangu explicitly told me that she was very grateful for this support. But she also did not quite manage to hide that these bits and pieces did not make much sense to her. We discussed this for a while but I was not sure if I was really getting her point. To understand her perspective fully, I proposed that I would try to draw an analogy from a different context that I was more familiar with − and then she would tell me if had understood her correctly. Wangu agreed. So I began to tell her a story from my recent fieldwork in Sierra Leone, where I had often encountered women who complained about microcredits being ‘no help’ and doing more harm than good. For one, the amount of money they were able to access was always too small to really make a meaningful investment (usually in trade, sometimes in agriculture). In addition, if things went really badly, they ended up not benefitting from their small investment (because goods got stolen or spoiled or harvests did not turn out as expected) and were unable to repay their debts so that they had to go into hiding. But even in the best case scenario, if they were able to reap some benefits, microcredits never enabled them to achieve something that actually changed their lives and put them on an upward socio-economic trajectory. I had not quite finished my story when Wangu started nodding. This is it exactly, she confirmed. The common denominator in Wangu’s and my Sierra Leonean interlocutors’ struggles was that they were not given the chance to build something truly meaningful and sustainable.
In other words, Wangu experienced that the piecemeal project approach did not even come with the possibility of making tangible change happen. What it does do is keep people extremely busy: writing strategies, organizing workshops or other activities, documenting them, hoping that donors are happy with them and fearing to make mistakes. From a donor perspective, this may appear as the safe choice. At least, too much money won’t be wasted on a single project in case it fails. But this approach does little to pave the way for the kind of movement that would actually have the potential of bringing positive changes to the lives of survivors of sexual violence in Kenya.
Building movements in a projectized world – some further thoughts instead of a conclusion
During my time in Nairobi, I often had the feeling that I was hearing about and encountering struggles that had implications even far beyond my research focus on the fight against sexual violence in Kenya. In this blog post, I chose to focus on Wangu’s struggle because her fierce determination and commitment deeply impressed me. But I also could have chosen encounters with other interlocutors to tell stories that all touched on the same set of issues: there is something seriously twisted about the way ‘proper’ possibilities for social change and progress are imagined in contemporary professional aid and development discourses and practices.
This twistedness, in turn, is related to developments and dynamics that are by no means confined to the global South. Among them are the professionalization of activism; the precarious job situations of an increasing number of (university-educated) professionals who – by virtue and/or default − are attracted to projectized forms of ‘doing good’; and an ever-increasing emphasis on rationalization of anything to do with public spending especially on ‘social issues’, which is meant to avoid wastage and/or corruption of public money at all costs − while unimaginable amounts of public money flow into financial bail-outs, and tax evasion by the richest continues to go unpunished across the globe.
In the end, it comes down to the question of accountability that was also raised in WWP’s final letter. As already quoted above, the letter demands that, ‘[W]e should start asking ourselves what kind of accountability we are talking about in these times of global turmoil.’ Apparently, activists pushing for social change are the ones who are held accountable for every cent and who are considered a highly risky investment. Their visions are deemed too expensive to take the risk or, if they do not meet predefined criteria, considered too unprofessional to warrant attention. These prioritizations and judgements are always already implied in contemporary professional aid and development discourses and practices. And it is certainly time to question them.
Anderl, Felix 2016, ‘The myth of the local: How international organizations localize norms rhetorically’, in: The Review of International Organizations 11:2, pp. 197-218.
Eriksson Baaz, Maria and Maria Stern 2018, ‘Curious erasures: the sexual in wartime sexual violence’, in: International Feminist Journal of Politics, https://doi.org/10.1080/14616742.2018.1459197.
Bosire, Lydiah K. and Gabrielle Lynch 2014, ‘Kenya’s Search for Truth and Justice: The Role of Civil Society’, in: International Journal of Transitional Justice 8:2, pp. 256–276.
Brown, Stephen and Chandra L. Sriram 2012, ‘The Big Fish won’t Fry themselves: Criminal Accountability for Post-Election Violence in Kenya’, in: African Affairs 111/443, pp. 244–260.
Human Rights Watch 2016, ‘They Were Men in Uniform’: Sexual Violence against Women and Girls in Kenya’s 2017 Elections. New York, NY: Human Rights Watch
Kimuna, Sitawa R. and Yanyi K. Djamba 2008, ‘Gender Based Violence: Correlates of Physical and Sexual Wife Abuse in Kenya’, in: Journal of Family Violence 23:5, pp.333-342.
Krause, Monika 2014, The Good Project: Humanitarian Relief NGOs and the Fragmentation of Reason. Chicago, IL, and London: University of Chicago Press.
Li, Tania M. 2007, The Will to Improve: Governmentality, Development, and the Practice of Politics. Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press.
Materu, Sosteness F. 2015, The Post-Election Violence in Kenya: Domestic and International Legal Responses. The Hague: Asser Press.
Obradovic-Wochnik, Jelena 2018, ‘Hidden politics of power and governmentality in transitional justice and peacebuilding: The problem of ‘bringing the local back in’, in: Journal of International Relations and Development, https://link.springer.com/article/10.1057%2Fs41268-017-0129-6.
Survivors of Sexual Violence in Kenya 2017, strategic Plan 2018-2022: Shattering Stigma and Discrimination – from Victim to Survivor. Nairobi: Wangu Kanja Foundation.
Wanyeki, Muthoni 2009, ‘Lessons from Kenya: Women and the Post-Election Violence’, in: Feminist Africa 10/2008, 91-98.
 I am grateful to Nico Popovic.
 WWP’s letter is available at https://www.wri-irg.org/en/story/2017/after-20-years-women-peacemakers-program-closes-its-doors (last accessed 6 June 2018).
 This field research was conducted in the context of the DFG-funded project ‘Redressing Sexual Violence in Truth Commissions: The Labelling of Women as Victims and its Social Repercussions’. See https://www.uni-marburg.de/konfliktforschung/personal/buckley-zistel/truth-commissions-eng?language_sync=1 (last accessed 12 June 2018).
 See e.g. Human Rights Watch News, 5 April 2016, ‘ICC: Kenya Deputy President’s Case Ends Witness Interference Undermined Trial`, https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/04/05/icc-kenya-deputy-presidents-case-ends (last accessed 7 June 2018).
 For example, in an interview with counsellors at the Centre for Rights Education and Awareness (CREAW) who work with abused women in Nairobi’s largest and most notorious slum Kibera, they relayed the story of a woman who was severely beaten by her husband every time he caught her eating something in his house. When she finally made it to the CREAW office, this woman, a breastfeeding mother, had not eaten for three days. The counsellors provided her with a meal out of their own pockets but could not offer her a place to go (the lack of shelters for abused women and girls is much lamented among those working in the field). The woman tried to hide at her neighbour’s place but probably had to return to her husband eventually (interview at CREAW, 13 March in Nairobi).
 Those working in human rights advocacy and those concerned with ‘technical‘ assistance for survivors can be found in somewhat different circles within Nairobi civil society (of course, there are also exceptions and overlaps). On the one hand, there are individuals, groups and organizations who focus on sexual violence in the context of human rights work, such as the Nairobi office of Physicians for Human Rights. On the other hand, there are organizations that specifically frame their work as technical and ‘a-political’, as offering solutions for pressing problems, such as LVCT Health.