A Discussion with Wanjala Wafula, Founder of the Coexist Initiative, Kenya

With: Wanjala Wafula Berkley Center Profile

November 11, 2014

Background: Wanjala Wafula is passionate and outspoken about his work to engage boys and men in fighting sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) in Kenya. Working from within his own cultural context, he has faced many obstacles as a man working on gender, in work that strives to counter cultural norms. Wanjala met with Crystal Corman and Elisabeth Stoddard in Nairobi on November 11, 2014 to discuss his organization, Coexist Kenya. His personal experience initially compelled him to fight against SGBV by working with men and he has engaged in this work for the past 12 years. He emphasizes the difficulty of changing norms to value girls and women. Given the role culture plays, Coexist also engages men and communities through faith perspectives and at times, interfaith dialogue. He says that there is still a far way to go to end this kind of violence and that this includes engaging religious leaders far more actively and purposefully; Wanjala laments the failure of religious groups to shun misogyny and materialism in their personal lives and church communities.

What led you to found Coexist Kenya?

I founded this initiative 12 years ago. I was in journalism at the time; I held editor positions at some of Kenya’s top newspapers including the Nation and the Standard. But, I changed my career path because of a personal very painful experience.

I’m a twin, one of 12 children. We are six sets of twins—six boys and six girls. One of my sisters had a set of triplets too! My twin sister was a trained nurse. One day, she came home to my village to visit my mother who was ailing. But along the way she was gang raped by five men, strangled, and killed. The village decided that according to our culture, a woman was only worth 14 goats and that the perpetrators should pay this as a form of punishment. So the men paid the goats as a fine for raping and killing her. I refused to accept the village’s ruling about the brutal attack and murder of my sister. I engaged the police and asked for an investigation and today the perpetrators are serving life sentences.

That’s when I abandoned journalism and realized that the world needed a different conversation with men and boys. We need to talk to men and boys about gender-based violence, masculinities, and negative social stereotypes. I wanted to engage men, not as perpetrators, but as partners, because there are many good men around the world. However, the good men have kept quiet and allowed the bad men to represent the whole gender.

So, twelve years ago I started a comprehensive program that would engage all stakeholders—men, women, boys, and girls—not just for gender justice, but also for studying peace and reducing conflict. Now we have programs running in refugee camps, conflict zones, prisons, universities, marginalized communities, and rural populations all over Kenya.

And our model is working very well with substantial impacts. We have partners all across East Africa and our work has been recognized through several awards—for example, were awarded by the African Union as an organization leading in peacebuilding, conflict mitigation, and justice. In 2014 we won the global award on intercultural dialogue sponsored by the European Union for our work on girls’ education and women’s rights in development. In 2015 we received the UNHCR commendation for designing interventions that are best practice in the world. We were subsequently the 2015 Avon Global Communications Award winners.

We now have four offices in Kenya—Dadaab refugee camp, Mombasa, Bungoma, and our headquarters in Kitengela. I serve on the National Gender Justice Committee of the Kenyan government as well as the technical committee of the National AIDS Control Council on issues of gender parity and justice. We currently have programs with DfID, UNESCO, Austrian Development Agency, and the World University Service of Canada.

What approaches do you use to foster peace?

We aim to empower women. More than bring the message of hope, we also try to strengthen their awareness of their human rights, and that they are entitled to justice, to peace and tranquility.

We use different approaches. Some of our key approaches focus on interfaith dialogue forums. I moderate and host these forums. We realize that religion can be positive or negative, and in Africa and around the world, religion has only been used for extremes. But, religion often fails to address the realities on the ground. So we host interfaith dialogues on thematic issues like resource allocation and security. Poverty, insecurity, and ignorance know no religion. And yet, we are still confined to a certain cocoon where we define religion only for the life to come. We say we will eat milk and honey in heaven, but, for me, I want to live here and now. I want religion to be applicable here.

In 2014 we hosted 16 national interfaith dialogue forums which brought together believers of all faiths and non-believers as well. We include everyone—Christians, Muslims, traditionalists, and Buddhists. We discuss how we can harness the power of religion into development.

For example, two weeks ago I was in the Dadaab refugee camp. This camp has refugees from 18 different countries all living in one community. They are from countries such as DRC, Zambia, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Sudan, Ethiopia, and Somalia. They are constantly fighting over resources, security, or the conflict in their countries. We hosted an interfaith forum that addressed the issues of insecurities and economic empowerment. We also organized focus group discussions with the top minds from the different religions to engage the current issues at a deeper level.

How long do these dialogues last and how many people participate?

We can have a dialogue with as many as 40 people from different religions. We try to keep the dialogues private because when you open them up to the general public, it often becomes confrontational. It loses its effect. From my experience, this is particularly true in Africa and East Africa, where there is quite a bit of suspicion between faith groups—Christians and non-Christians.

How do you deal with the sensitivities?

These forums can often be very tense. Three months ago, I led an interfaith dialogue forum where the people showed up with deep suspicions.

One thing that has never been done in Africa is to demystify religion. People were unfamiliar with the process and merits of interfaith dialogue. They felt uncomfortable interacting with other faiths because it could lead to doubt of your own religion. It led to an ‘us against them’ narrative. African people often think of God as sitting up there in the mountains, in the clouds. They don’t want anyone to interrupt him, to question him or the Bible. But now people are becoming interested in engaging with others about faith. They realize it is okay to interact and challenge each other. That does not damage your own faith; it can strengthen it.

Our dialogues grapple with difficult and pertinent questions. An example is the issue of beating women: everyone has different opinions. They are mostly based on interpretation of scriptures, interpretations which are not always right, and cultural norms. Some traditional elders who have never been to a school are happy to take hard positions, but their opinions are only shaped by their culture. You ask them what their religious understanding is around beating a woman and you hear them saying, “You beat her if….” A Hindu in the same dialogue group may say that you can’t beat a woman because she is a blessing from God. A Muslim might say, “Don’t beat her, just marry another one.”

We end up having 20 different opinions on the table, which causes us to begin thinking, “which one is better”? After discussions, we have a vote and the outcome is that no one is allowed to beat any woman. The dialogue process allows even the most religious to question their own stance. In general, I have seen that there is much readiness to engage.

How do the dialogue sessions end?

They always end with a handshake. That is the condition we set at the beginning. We shake hands before we sit down, and we promise that we will tolerate and respect one another. We must always shake hands at the end. However, sometimes after such a session when they go outside, they follow each other and say, “That’s not right.” So the conversation always continues after the session ends.

We make sure to give the communities the tools to sustain the dialogue even after we leave. Before the first dialogue session, we identify three or four people whom we train as facilitators. We teach them communication skills and how to manage the group. Once we leave, they take over. We encourage them to meet away from us, and it has been very successful. In Mombasa for example, they have held three other forums without us. They decide the topic and bring everyone together by themselves.

What new issues did the forums in Mombasa take on?

Mostly security issues. It is a contentious issue in Mombasa because there is a high Muslim and Christian population. Recent terror attacks have only heightened tensions. The Christians were saying that Muslims were invading churches and killing people. They wanted guns to protect themselves. The dialogues provided a setting for both groups to come together and talk openly about the tensions and events occurring in Mombasa.

You do a lot of work around gender justice in Kenya. Can you talk about your approach, challenges, and successes in your work?

Our focus at Coexist is to work with men and boys. The feminist movement missed the point because they focused on women’s problems as women’s problems. They didn’t focus on women’s problems as the world’s problems. They focused on giving women fighting skills without knowing the dynamics of the environments in which women operate, specifically the role that men play.

Our work at Coexist has been to engage with men because we believe that there are billions of good men who do not fight women, who don’t beat women, who don’t abandon their families or abuse alcohol, who are not criminals, who love, and take their children to school. Those men are many. The good men far outweigh the few hoodlums who kick and kill women around the world. But even though the good men are many, we allow the few hoodlums to represent us as a gender.

So, our programs target boys. We believe that until we raise a generation of boys who have the courage, conscience, and character to realize that we are all born equal in the image of God, and we all deserve the same opportunities, we will never solve the problem of power imbalance in Africa. We must raise a generation of boys who understand that their strength is to love and care, not to hurt.

Research has confirmed that up to age 13, boys are willing to listen to positive role models. After that age, they become increasingly influenced by Hollywood and negative social pressures. We try to engage boys between the ages of seven and 13 in order to instill in them positive practices and ideas about masculinity and the importance of respecting and valuing the contribution of women.

It is my opinion that many organizations and programs engage boys when it is too late. I always give an example of a tree that drops bad leaves every morning. Every morning we have to wake up to sweep up the dry leaves only to find that the following morning the compound is full of dry leaves once again. We have to focus on planting trees that will be green and will shed fewer leaves.

Society needs to do the same. We wait until the boys have become dry leaves—when they are already criminals, delinquents, drug addicts, and abusers. We start prison programs and rehabilitation centers. We miss the point.

In our programs, we work with primary, secondary, and university level schools to give gender-based violence prevention and gender equity a voice, to help these values take root in boys while they are young.

Focusing on men and boys is fairly new in gender work. Have you faced any opposition to your work?

Absolutely—when I left journalism and started Coexist. I went back to my newspaper and told my friends that I had started an organization to work with men to make sure that we protect and value our sisters and mothers. My boss said, “You are right” and offered to give me a front page story in the next day’s newspaper.

I went home very excited. I couldn’t sleep all night. I anxiously waited till 5:00 a.m. for the paper to arrive so I could see the article. The story was there but it read, “A Group of Battered Men Meet in the City.” They put my picture on the front page. My boss had spun and sensationalized the story because he was convinced that I had gone mad. He thought that my wife had beaten me so much that I had changed and was supporting women.

Eight years later, we started winning some awards and he finally gave me a good headline, “Standing Up to Be Men.” He apologized for the previous article and now he speaks in our forums.

I face a lot of opposition. People don’t understand why a man would be leading a gender justice campaign. Men think I’m not a man. They think I’m very stupid and have a mental disorder. Women don’t trust me. They think I have some sort of ulterior motive. I spend a lot of time trying to justify myself and the work of my organization.

In addition to gender work with boys, what does your work on sexual and gender-based violence look like?

We are doing a lot of things. I host two radio programs, and we have made documentaries with the BBC and others about sexual exploitation and gender based violence in Kenya. In our operational programs, we focus on working at the community level to prevent sexual violence.

Stakeholders tend to treat women as a statistic—this month only 40 women were raped, last month it was 50. See, we are making progress! I think this attitude is abominable. How can you compare the lives of women that have been ruined and traumatized as less or more?

Our approach is to start a campaign that educates men and boys about the dangers of sexual violence and focuses on prevention rather than interventions. Building recovery centers to help survivors of sexual violence is a good thing but we should never prioritize it. I don’t want any woman to be raped. We are aiming for zero rapes.

How do culture and societal norms influence SGBV in Kenya?

The overriding factor in our programming is that we think men are paying a big price for the current construction of masculinity. So for us, our programming is about addressing the cost of manhood and its manifestations. We have to address the negative attributes of what it means to be a man in Africa. We link the construction of masculinity to the upbringing and negative socialization of boys.

Working through faith is a large part of countering negative socialization. In my view, culture sometimes takes precedence over religion. We are being raised in a way that religion has not been able to instill the morals and values that it is meant to.

African socialization gives men power to have whatever they want, but makes women subservient to everything. Men are socialized to be entitled—entitled to beat their wives, entitled to sell their land, entitled to come home and ask for food, entitled not to dedicate themselves to their children. It is a pity that women all over Africa have accepted subservience in this age and time.

In my culture, they say a wife who has not been battered has not been loved. I’ve seen my own sister who has a Ph.D. and is the director of a prominent research institute in Kenya with a black eye. I asked her what happened. She told me, “Don’t worry. I was walking down the stairs and the lights went off. I stumbled and hit myself on the wall.” I said, “Oh, that must have been a very oddly shaped wall. It only hit you in one eye on one specific spot.” I spoke to her husband and asked him why he was beating my sister. He said, “No, I didn’t beat her. She came home and bought me a lot of whiskey and blamed me for not loving her.”

Of course in our culture, a woman who has not been slapped or kicked is not loved. So here is a professional, a director of a research institute, but yet she hasn’t overcome the socialization through her education; she hasn’t overcome it through her religion. She has accepted subservience.

So women in Kenya believe they deserve spousal abuse?

I have a chapter in one of my books that is called “Women Who Beg to be Battered.” They beg and when they are battered, they go back to their homes and bring the man a delicacy. They bring him a nice well-done chicken. They reward the man for ‘loving’ her.

Along with these cultural elements, do you work on other harmful cultural practices?

We have had great success in eradicating harmful traditional practices within communities, because men are both surprised and excited when you engage them in dialogue. When you speak to them about the dangers men incur from these traditional practices, they are very surprised and become open to change.

I recently visited a very rural community where they don’t even have formal schools. They live in very small houses or in the bush. In this community, they have a ceremony for old men—say he is 85—who cannot find a woman to marry. Yet he still needs a woman to take care of him. In such a case, he takes his youngest daughter who is 13 or 14 and goes to his friend who has a daughter of the same age. The two men swap, taking the other’s daughter as a bride.

I learned two men were planning to perform this ceremony. I went to them and had a dialogue with them and the community. In the end, the men agreed to not go through with the ceremony. The girls returned to school instead. Men can change. African men can change.

Another example is the practice of men killing lions in the Maasai culture. They say that a brave man must kill a lion to become respected in the community. When I speak with them I tell them, these are new times—lions are missing. I tell them their new lion is ignorance and poverty. We have to change the conversation.

In your opinion, why have harmful cultural practices been so difficult to counter in Kenya?

The problem in Kenya is that many NGOs use a cut and paste method for their programming. NGOs think that what worked in Switzerland, will work in a village in Kenya. The HIV/AIDS programming is a classic example. For years, campaigns about abstaining, being faithful, and using a condom were everywhere. That will never work in African countries. You have to package the information differently to bring the message to each group—married, young, and old. After 10 years, their approaches began to change to incorporate more contextual programs. Now we have brought down infection rates markedly. Context is crucial when you are trying to change behavior.

Can you talk about the issue of sexual exploitation in Kenya?

This is my pet subject. I talk about it everywhere I go. African women and girls’ bodies are currently a battlefield. Because of this, they are constantly exploited. They are used as weapons of war. Women and girls are abused, abducted, married off, forced out of school, and trafficked. The exploitation that is not as visible is the sexual pressure around women which is driven by the way men and women are raised.

My father is Ugandan, my mother is Kenyan, and my grandmother is Sudanese. In all of these cultures, women are born and prepared for sexual violence. My grandmother would tell her daughters and granddaughters, “Your body belongs to men. So, don’t resist any man if he wants you. If he rapes you, remove your clothes. Go to the river and bathe. Hide in the bush and wait until it is evening. Then, come back home.” Our communities are destroying any evidence that exist for protecting women. They are socializing women to accept to be used and abused. Even when abuses are reported to the police, it very rarely goes to court. The evidence is insufficient because the examination is done too late, or the woman has already washed the evidence away.

What laws are in place in Kenya to protect against sexual violence? Are they actually implemented?

We have the best laws but limited budget to implement them. We have a Sexual Offenses Act, the Children’s Act, the Bill of Rights, the Constitution, and affirmative action but none of them have adequate implementation mechanisms or a sufficient budget allocated. No system is in place to monitor and measure effectiveness.

How does religion come into these issues? Can faith actors play a role in the response?

Religion and faith actors should play a key role in all of these issues, especially the development of women and girls. In my view, however, religion to date has played a greater role in increasing the vulnerabilities of women and girls. Religion has been able to spread the fallacies about women in society: that women should be subservient or are inferior. No religion acknowledges that a woman can be powerful.

Because of that position of inferiority, the church even has a problem of accepting women’s participation in its own ranks. Therefore, religious actors are failing to be a player in the development of women and girls.

For as long as religion continues to play a role in strengthening communal beliefs that validate the position of women as inferior in society, we will not make much progress.

Religion has become subservient to culture. Originally, religion was supposed to be a way out of harmful cultural practices. But now, culture has been able to overcome religion. We have churches standing up to justify polygamy and wife battering.

Some religious leaders condone wife battering?

One time, I attended a meeting with only pastors. I asked them, “Honestly, how many of us have pinched our wives out of love?” I was lightheartedly trying to engage them in a discussion about GBV. All of the pastors answered that they had pinched their wives out of love. They believed that a wife’s position was to support the husband because the husband is the head and the wife is the neck.

If religious leaders believe a woman’s role is defined by subservience, how likely is it for them to accept a new role for women in society, government, science, or education? The church and religion has failed to overcome the negative cultural norms which have been chaining Africa for so long.

Recent news articles have covered scandals involving male clergy, including inappropriate relations with women in the faith community. What is your reaction?

I have lived and worked in the church for many years, and I am sorry to say that the quality of faith and religion in Africa is fading. The gospel of materialism has overtaken the gospel of faith and belief in God.

We are no longer preaching salvation and faith; we are preaching giving and planting seeds. In many cases, the fruits of giving are hoarded away for personal gain. We have degenerated to a time where you can no longer tell between the secular and the holy. There is no divide. That’s why the media is awash with scandals of pastors claiming miracles.

Religion is a victim of the same social norms that condone sexual violence. You have a pastor who is Godly, yet succumbs to manhood the way he was raised. He believes he is superior. That’s why you have pastors who wake up in the morning, they preach and then end up in the restrooms with people’s wives. They preach but still think they need wealth to assert their masculinity and maintain superiority.

It is a problem that can only be fixed by raising a new generation of responsible and respectful young men, as well as young women who see their worth and power. Faith actors can and should be involved in this process. But, acknowledging our current biases and engaging in open dialogue about gender roles and the negative consequences of our current religious and cultural norms will be crucial to moving forward as a society.

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