A Discussion with Jacqueline Mutere, Founder and Director of Grace Agenda
With: Jacqueline Mutere Berkley Center Profile
June 3, 2015
Background: During the chaos of communal violence, everyone is threatened as security systems and norms weaken; women and girls become especially vulnerable. Jacqueline Mutere supports survivors of rape during conflict, especially those victimized during the 2007 and 2008 post-election violence in Kenya. Her own experience and resilience motivated her to support other survivors and their children by founding Grace Agenda. Jacqueline met with Crystal Corman on June 3, 2015 while she was visiting Washington, D.C. to advocate for attention to the issues of violence against women on Capitol Hill. In this interview, she tells her own story and the beginnings of Grace Agenda. She explains the organization’s efforts to advocate for survivors, its collaboration with stakeholders supporting survivors of gender-based violence, and its short-term shelter. The theme of grace is central as Jacqueline speaks about the role personal faith can play in recovery, as well as her hopes for leadership from faith actors.
Tell me about the history of your organization, Grace Agenda. Why did you found it?
I founded Grace Agenda following the post-election violence of 2007 and 2008 to support other survivors of gender-based violence during that period. You see, I am a survivor myself. I was raped by my neighbor’s friend during this post-election violence. He overpowered me, and I didn’t want to scream because I didn’t want the children to see me in that vulnerable position. The following month I discovered that I was pregnant due to this rape. I decided to have an abortion but the first time I tried to have an abortion, my oldest daughter needed money for school supplies. I instead gave her the money I had saved. The second time I tried to have an abortion, the institution I had planned to go to was closed down. Abortion is illegal and there had been a reported death at that place. The third time I tried, I went to a clinic. At this time I was five or six months pregnant and I was showing. When I arrived, the doctor told me I should just wait at the clinic while he went out to do some field work; I sat there until late in the evening and then they told me he was unable to make it back.
At that point, I decided it would be a bit dangerous to have the abortion, and I should just put the baby up for adoption. I had just had a baby the previous year and my health was really failing due to the stress of the pregnancy. It was stressful on both my health and on my finances. I worked with a social worker and he started a file. I waited for him to come and collect the baby when I went into labor, because I didn’t want to see the baby. I just wanted them to take the baby. Unfortunately, the social worker was delayed.
And as I came out of the surgeon’s room I was very groggy, but I kept hearing the voice of a baby crying in the background. There were many children crying but this particular one really bothered me. I told the nurse, “Why don’t you come and deal with this baby? She is really crying. Please give her attention, maybe the mother hasn’t woken up.” But when I turned I realized the nurse was coming toward me, and there was a green bundle next to me. When I opened the bundle I saw my baby. She was a pretty little girl. I named her Princess. She is now 7 years old. I didn’t kill her. The maternal love flowed from me because I had seen her and maybe because she was so cute.
How did you find and connect with the other survivors of rape?
I was recovering very poorly so I went back to the hospital and went to counseling. I had given birth in November 2008 (most of the rape cases also gave birth in the last quarter of the year). As I continued to go to counseling, I met women who had been raped during the post-election violence and had also had children. As we began bonding, I went to visit them in their homes and discovered that the children were really being abused. They had cuts and bruises on them. They were neglected, suffering from malnutrition, and had bad attitudes. I realized it was the mothers who were abusing the babies. I found that the women were projecting their pain on the children and beating them. So I thought to myself, this is not right. This is the original reason why I wanted to give the baby away; I didn’t want to abuse my baby.
I decided to start with us women sitting around talking about our issues and what the child represents, how the child is affecting our lifestyles. For others the child was an added burden, a social burden. There was so much stigma related to the child. And of course because we come from small communities, you know that people were talking about you. There was stigma both for yourself and for the child—what the child represented. That’s how Grace Agenda was born.
There are many success stories from the initial counseling group. The children are all now seven years old. They go to school. The only one who hasn’t gone has a special disability. The mother has been finding it a bit of a challenge, but she’s under good care. The children are not so abused now. The mothers have gone through the process of healing. They are actually very committed members of society. They even lead gender-based violence working groups in their community.
Tell me more about these gender-based violence working groups in communities.
These groups collaborate to make life easier for the survivor during the referral pathways. They also do advocacy on reduction of stigma, especially for rape and the children born from the same, and the group acts as an early warning system. The group includes the chief’s representative, the police representative, the medical representative, the social workers’ representative, the community health workers’ representative, a youth leader, and the survivors’ representative. We really believe in having the survivor’s voice at every table, because it will always give you a perception that you may not otherwise hear.
The group is really key in moving the processes that support survivors; the representatives report to each other, including the government, so they know what to anticipate. Ideally the processes are also made more efficient, so that if a survivor needs to go to the police station, one would find a friendly person there who would be able push their agenda. And if they went to the hospital, they would find a friendly person there or someone who would be able to support them through the medical processes. For example, you will be advised on how to preserve the evidence, timing of the evidence and also not to wash yourself, but instead take your clothes and put them in a dry paper bag, not a plastic bag that will retain moisture. They become advocates on all these important issues and know the full process.
Where have you set up these working groups?
In Nairobi. I have a very strong network in Nairobi. For now, I have been focusing on strengthening the Nairobi group but I also want to start a GBV working group in Busia.
Why in Busia?
I’m working in Busia specifically to support an orphaned girl with disabilities who was raped by police. She is a little girl who was 7 years old at the time; she is 12 now. She is not advancing very well. I heard about her story and that’s why I decided I wanted to duplicate my work in Busia.
Do you have other programs specifically focused on women and girls with disabilities?
We collaborate with the Association of Professional Women with Disabilities, who support the women with disabilities within our organization. The head of that organization comes to counsel and inspire our women. She has a job as the deputy registrar at the University of Nairobi.
What other programs do you focus on?
We have grown over time. Currently our programs include running a shelter and doing advocacy around the distribution of government reparations funds. We wanted some part of these reparation funds to go to women who are survivors of rape—including those who were infected with HIV and had babies from the rapes. We are still discussing the details of the reparations. The ICTJ, International Center for Transitional Justice, is supporting us in our work on the reparations program and is also supporting our participation in the police vetting process, which is part of the police reforms in Kenya.
Tell me about Grace Agenda’s involvement in the police vetting process.
A lot of the women were raped by policemen. Since policemen have to go through a vetting process before they can be promoted, we try to recognize or highlight incidences of police rape to show perhaps where that officer could have raped women, been in charge of a police station where rapes took place, or denied women the right to report the incidents in the occurrence book. It’s a human rights violation to be denied access to write in the book. It’s not an easy process at all. But so far we’ve had three forums of 18 women each. Only two names have come up so far, because when somebody is raping you, you often don’t see them clearly, especially if they’re in a police uniform and wearing their hat and coat. This makes it difficult to identify them.
We are also making recommendations for the police service. Their motto is to change from being a police “force” to a police “service.” They offer a complaint form formulated by the Police Service Commission; it’s even on their website.
Are you exclusively working on rapes that happened in the 2007 and 2008 post-election violence?
It extends beyond that, because the policeman could have been a previous perpetrator. The police officer could have been working in that area for over ten years so that over time he would become very familiar with that area and the community. Given this, he could exercise a lot of power in that region.
Do you work with police officers on how to better work with rape victims, being more sensitive?
Not yet, not yet. We made a request to have deeper interactions with the police system, specifically to deal with rape and any other human rights violation towards women. Our hope is that they will be more sensitized, more aware of what the violation does to the victim and how that abuse of power is perceived by others. The integrity of your work as a police officer is questionable if you abuse women.
Are most GBV cases heard by courts in Kenya? What are some of the challenges in taking a GBV case to court?
Some cases go to the very end, when you find someone who is very determined. But in most instances, people don’t take their cases to court. Also, a case can be compromised at various levels, such as by the police station or error with medical reports. They can also just keep you shuttling about until the sense of frustration makes you forget the whole thing! When you go to get the medical report, you’ll be told, “Where is the P3 form?” You go to get the P3 form from the police and you hear, “Where is the medical report?” In many instances we’ve also heard that you have to pay for some of the services where actually it’s supposed to be free.
From my own research, I found that cases are seen in court. Out of 200 cases I found that 15 cases had gone to court and been served a sentence of not less than 15 years. These were mostly cases for the rape of a minor. Cases that didn’t make it very far in sentencing were ones where it was proven to be foul play by somebody just wanting to plant a case on somebody or attempted rape. There was also a case with two minors and the parents settled.
Some people choose to settle the issue in a tribal court. But in these instances, very rarely do people consider the impact on the survivor. You see, a tribal court is typically about elders sitting down getting to some sort of appeasement, without thinking about the survivor. For example, if a girl has been raped, they may settle the matter by asking the perpetrator to give the girl’s father five goats to compensate. But are the goats sold so that this girl can get medical care? Or will the goats allow her to go to school, finish her education or get counseling so that she can recover? These things never happen. The men just take the goats. One goat is consumed, and the other four become part of the herd and are eventually paid out as part of the dowry for their son to go and marry somebody else’s daughter.
You help provide services for survivors, including a shelter. Can you tell me about the shelter Grace Agenda has opened?
We’ve established a shelter for raped and abused women. So far, most of our clients have been minors who have been raped, conceived during the rape, and had a child. The first client was a girl whose mother had died and the father had remarried. Since the new mother and he didn’t want her any longer, the father had actually given her away. I could call it slavery, because she was doing housework in a house, but it was the father who was receiving the money. She ran away and came back and said she wanted to go to school, but they didn’t let her. They said, “You’re too old! Who will take care of the baby if you go back to school?” So she came to us.
The shelter is really just a place of refuge. Where we hope those who seek it will sort through next steps within a span three to seven days. The shelter is very labor-intensive and resource-intensive; since there are children involved, you need even more resources to keep somebody there. This is why it is a temporary shelter to enable you to process yourself. We recommend a minimum of three sessions of counseling before someone moves on, and part of this counseling is helping to identify the next move. To make a report, you can go to the police station, make a medical report. We assume this basically takes three days minimum and seven days maximum because of the delays in the system. Once you make a decision, we support you. We take you to wherever you want to be. This also frees up room for other clients.
In addition to responding to violence, do you work on prevention?
Yes. We are part of the 16 Days of Activism Against GBV campaign in November/December. In that we have been supported by GOAL Kenya. One year, we had a sensitization. Last year we were supported by the GBV Network that gave us a lot of material to help us engage with people at different levels. We had a booklet to help sensitize chiefs and we had ribbons, wristbands, and posters to hand out to community members.
I’m also a member of the Africa Unite Kenya chapter, which is part of the UN secretary general’s prevention of violence against women and girls campaign. In the past year we’ve been getting together and sensitizing communities and various stakeholders. We also partner with organizations like Women Empowerment Link that have been responsible for the Protection Against Domestic Violence Bill.
What role does religion play in your work, either in terms of the faith of survivors or working with faith communities?
The faith of the survivors is so critical, because when it comes to counseling, some refuse to go to secular counseling or would prefer to go for counseling to their pastors. The only problem they meet there is that many of the pastors don’t know how to manage GBV cases or the survivors are averse to dealing with a pastor who is a man because their rapist was a man. A woman pastor is ideally the sort of person one would want to open up to. At times pastors aren’t very skilled or empathetic enough to understand what the survivors are going through.
Secondly, I find that the faith community has been very aloof in terms of engaging with gender-based violence. There’s a lack of capacity within the church but also within all the faith institutions, within Islamic institutions as well.
What role can faith leaders play in supporting survivors of gender-based violence?
Faith leaders are the missing link. There are programs training medical workers, police officers, judges, and so on, but survivors need their faith leaders. Because ultimately, people will go to church, and they’ll turn to their faith leader or their faith institution for support. You can’t delink the spiritual aspect from the rest of it, because so often people say, “If God hadn’t helped me...” I say so myself too! If God hadn’t helped me, I’d be finished. I really do say that. But I had to come to it by myself. I realize that not everyone has that personal strength and integrity. That’s why my agenda became grace. That’s how the name came about. My agenda became grace, because grace means strength.
Based on your experience, what advice do you have for faith actors?
I would like to see pastors and religious leaders talking more about gender-based violence. They can use their platforms, be it the loudspeaker during the Muslims prayers or the pulpit in the other faith institutions, to sensitize people and help reduce the stigma survivors face. There always has to be somebody to start the movement. I can see faith institutions standing up and offering counsel on this, especially on stigma reduction. Faith leaders ought to focus on capacity building and sensitizing their communities. We could use the same methodology from the fight against HIV, which has been a success.
Faith leaders can also raise support, because if faith actors call for a special offering, they could support an organization like Grace Agenda. They could support the shelter by paying for the food or buying mattresses. Even if it is a one-time gift. They can decide on their own what it is that they are able to do, but they are able to do something, simply because they have the platform.
Faith actors have the position strategically to actually speak to the people, because they have a congregation that comes willingly to hear what they have to say, repeatedly each week. They can use their social power to actually mobilize for survivors of gender-based violence, either to support institutions helping survivors or directly offer support to survivors. Or they can start conversations within their activities such as when they have the youth camps, women’s meetings, the mother’s ministry, or the welcoming ministry. They can start sensitizing at that level.