The Survivor Who Was Carjacked, Raped, and Now Fights for Other Victims
Wangu Kanja was 25 when she was carjacked and raped at gunpoint in Kenya. Now, the 41 year old is fighting for survivors' voices to be heard in the country.
All photos by Gerald Anderso/Citylife Media
"He told me to undress, I refused—I said, 'No. What you are doing is wrong.' He asked me again. I said, 'No, I don't know you. What you're asking me is wrong.' The third time he asked, he took out a gun. Eventually he gave me a bullet and said, 'You choose whether you want to live or die.'"
This is how Wangu Kanja describes the night in 2002 when she was raped at gunpoint. She is matter of fact in her description. It's a story she has told many times before.
It has been nearly 16 years since she was carjacked and violently sexually assaulted as she travelled home with associates from a business meeting in Nairobi, Kenya. The perpetrators ransacked the group's bank cards and took Kanja hostage, the only woman in the group, in case they had given incorrect PIN numbers.
That was the night she says her world came to a standstill.
"He raped me at gunpoint. His mate was standing at the entrance so I didn't have a choice, I couldn't run away. After, I was numb, I didn't know how to react to it, the trauma," she said.
"When I came out to speak about my ordeal people judged me. The first question was always how were you dressed? Who were you with? People's reactions were either to keep silent or to blame me, instead of holding the perpetrator accountable."
Kanja reported the incident, however, despite attending hospital, police refused to acknowledge the attack as rape. They told her: "Sex is sex," and labelled it robbery with violence. Her rapist was never found.
According to the 2014 Kenya demographic and health survey, 45 per cent of the country's women aged 15 to 49 have experienced physical violence, and 14 per cent have suffered sexual violence.
"Sexual violence cuts across all classes. A person who will abuse a women does it because they know they can get away with it, so they can be rich or poor," Kanja, 41, tells me.
She blames a pervasive patriarchy, infiltrating every level of African society. Kanja says misconceptions of what actually constitutes sexual violence are rife, explaining that the concept of consent is confused by deep-rooted, steadfast traditions that men are owners of women.
"In African culture, women are seen as property, the man has control. Whether you are willing to have sex or not, you will do what the man asks. Women cannot make noise, you don't have the power of your body. You are a woman so you are born to serve the man," she said.
We speak following the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative in November, a UK government-led roundtable that aims to tackle the stigma suffered by survivors of sexual violence and children born of rape.
Part of coming to terms with her own experience was the realization that if Kanja, an educated woman from a middle-class family, could suffer such horrific trauma, then it could happen to any woman.
That drove her to set up the Wangu Kanja Foundation in 2005 and to push for survivors' testimonies to be at the heart of Kenyan government policy. She recognizes the challenge as multi-layered, hinging on crucial prevention and education measures.
"I asked myself: 'What happens to those women who don't have the resilience to look past what other people are seeing?' That's why I established the foundation because you need people to walk with you through recovery, it's not going to be a one day affair," she said.
In Kenya, sex is a conversation that is supposed to happen in darkness and behind closed doors.
The women that come to her often need urgent medical attention. Some are admitted to hospital for a day, others for months. Some need total reconstructive surgery of their genitals.
"If hospitals have to perform ten of these operations a day, that's money that could be invested in a project empowering women, training them, so they can be financially independent," she said.
Much of the foundation's work focuses on modernizing the perception of a woman's role in society, engaging whole communities in the discussion.
Veena O'Sullivan, head of sexual violence and peacebuilding at the UK development charity Tearfund tells me one of the key challenges lies in transforming the restrictive notion of masculinity.
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"One in every four men globally has committed violence against women or girls—meaning three out of four men have not. Those men aren't speaking up and that is an extraordinary force that needs to be unleashed," she said. "Women raised these men. As mothers, we are responsible for raising boys like we raise girls. Patriarchy is about power and harmful social norms, so addressing gender injustices is core to the work we do."
Tearfund also works to transform religious communities into safe spaces for victims, a complex task when virginity and repression of female sexuality so often prevail as revered values.
"A lot of the time when faith communities are saying the most astonishingly ridiculous things, it is fear of the unknown," O'Sullivan said. "We ask them: 'Do you think that because of your faith or do you think that because of your culture?' And when you sift through that, a lot of it isn't because of faith, the harmful social norms are a big mixed bag."
Kanja's foundation often sees women who have been abandoned by their families, or chased out of their homes as a result of their trauma. Others keep it secret and tell no one apart from her staff.
"My own family know this happened to me but they don't have communication structures so it's difficult to open up to them. I understand where my parents are coming from because in Kenya sex is a conversation that is supposed to happen in darkness and behind closed doors, it's not an easy conversation to have openly," she said. "My younger sister cannot talk to her own children about sex, she asks me to speak to them."
Despite the discomfort, Kanja is determined in her fight for openness and equality. She says that her family often ask her when she will get married, and she always replies that she is yet to meet the right person.
"I'm not ready to just give up what I'm currently doing, I've seen it transform lives," she said. "I'm not under any pressure because I've told my parents and my friends, if that's the conversation they want to have, they can have it by themselves."
We'll start to see change with the realization that if one person is affected, everyone is affected.
Kanja is buoyed by her work, the impact of which is tangible. When we speak she is in Dublin but she is itching to get back to the foundation where she knows she can deliver real change on the ground. Her rape has undoubtedly changed the trajectory of her life.
"I can say I've recovered but that ordeal will never come out of your head. It takes time, don't rush the person, let the person make the decisions for themselves," she said.
"The more we talk about it, the more people want to know. We'll start to see change with the realization that if one person is affected, everyone is affected."