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AROUND THE WORLD
Interview with Sylvia Sitawa and Thuku wa Njuguna
Giving out flyers and posters, MEGEN members talk to people in small towns and villages about how to end violence against women (photo: MEGEN)
Men for Gender Equality Now takes action in Kenya and Malawi: When Thuku Njuguna’s daughter was sexually harassed, the Kenyan police asked him why he as a man was reporting the incident instead of the mother. They refused to follow up the case because of lack of suspects. Not being able to seek justice for his daughter’s abuse Thuku felt powerless and frustrated. In 2003, he joined Men for Gender Equality Now (MEGEN), a Kenya based Civil Rights organization. Every year, MEGEN members form the “Men’s Travelling Conference”. The men board buses to travel all over the country and tell other men about the importance of stopping violence against women and building peaceful communities. In 2009, MEGEN launched its program in Malawi.
UNIFEM: From November 30 to December 2 this year, about 75 men in Kenya and, for the first time, 105 men in Malawi got on MEGEN tour busses and traveled all across both countries to spread the message about ending violence against women. The MTC also received a lot of support from the media and local politicians – how did this help your work?
Sylvia: What we are trying to do is to reach communities that would otherwise not be able to hear about our work or attend seminars. The media support we got with the help from UNIFEM mobilized the public and informed them about our activities ahead of our arrival in all the 36 Kenyan towns and villages we visited. When we came, people were ready and waiting for us to talk about the issue. Through the political support of the Kenyan Minister of Gender, Children and Social Development, Hon. Esther Murugi Mathenge, we met with many more public officials than in previous years and were able to ask them to use legislation to protect women and girls from violence. 136 people along the routes supported MTC by signing their names and pledging to be role models, calling for information or having long discussions with us. It was clear that more men signed up for the actions than women. We think this is due to the fact that with MEGEN the men to men approach stands out - men simply open up more towards other men.
Thuku: The launch in Malawi, for which ten Kenyan MEGEN members, including myself, traveled many miles, was a big success. In a public ceremony, the Minister of Gender, Child and Community Development, Hon. Patricia Kaliati, handed an award to the founder of MEGEN Malawi, Madame Emma Kaliya. Mme. Kaliya really moved the people with her speech and talked about her passion for fighting against gender-based violence. The momentum for talking about the issue is very strong, not only in Kenya and Malawi, but also in our neighboring countries Tanzania and Zambia.
UNIFEM: Once the MTC busses arrive in a new town or village, how do you manage to gain people’s attention?
Sylvia: We always start off with our group of artists, who perform a dance, song or a skit about violence. They trigger very strong feed-back from the crowds: some people who are against violence start asking us questions, others think we should go back where we came from and stop telling them how to live decently. We also hand out flyers with messages such as “Real men don’t abuse women”, and information on what to do in case of a rape. Often, survivors of violence step up and start talking to us about their experiences in our one-on-one dialogue sessions. This year for example, a case was brought to us where a 4 year old child had been abused by the uncle. The case had been taken to court but the parents did not know how to follow up. We put the mother in touch with an official of one of our partner organizations, HelpAge Kenya, and continue to monitor her case to ensure the child gets justice for the crime committed against her. We find that a lot of the cases we encounter in Kenya and Malawi circle around the same issues - early marriage, female genital mutilation, HIV infections and domestic violence are the most common.
Thuku: When we arrive in a town or village, people are often hesitant at first. Many men consider it unmanly to tell them to stop beating up women. I like to think that once you talk to them, every man can understand that violence is not the way to go. You can call upon their decency, their role as a father and son. You can get a man to do something because he believes that he has a role to play. It has to become a personal conviction for them that violence against women has to be stopped. Also, survivors of violence are often traumatized and frustrated. As you get to talk with them, they open up more. They see that you are a man yourself, and you are talking about this issue because you believe that it is wrong.
UNIFEM: What happens once a case is being reported to you?
Sylvia: Our Rapid Response Team that travels with us on the road are responsible for taking up and responding to each case that is reported to us before, during and after MTC. In areas where MEGEN has already set up a local chapter, the MEGEN members on the ground take up the case, accompany survivors of violence to relevant authorities, to hospitals or to court session.
UNIFEM: Are the police more willing to act according to the legislation in the Sexual Offences Act that passed in 2006?
Sylvia: Yes, I think they are more willing to use this legislation now. This year, prior to the travel to Malawi and around Kenya, we met with the senior police officer in charge of the gender and community policing unit at the police headquarters in Nairobi, Madame Beatrice Nduta. She promised her support in the process of apprehending perpetrators of violence.
UNIFEM: Do you find your work with MEGEN satisfying?
Thuku: I feel very happy about it, I feel fulfilled about it. It makes me feel good when I see a child who has been abused stand up and face the perpetrator, and gets him convicted. It shifts the power level and I also feel good that I can give back to the community.