I lead a humanitarian mission to Kenya. Here’s what it taught me
Content warning: graphic discussion of sexual violence.
This story starts much earlier, but I like to hit the ground running, so I’m throwing you right into the deep end. It was 2 a.m. when my fellow delegates Ziyaan Virji, Arpan Grover and I climbed into the car that was picking us up. The roads were quiet. The sky was pitch black. The feeling of gravel under my hikers and the security guard behind me reminded me to remain vigilant - I was in Kenya, after all.
There was something the three of us noticed immediately. There were people in the front passenger seat. Two, to be exact. I found them on the road, they’ve been robbed, our driver told us. I’m sorry for the detour, but I need to drop them off to the police station, he said.Of course, none of us objected. The driver and the passengers conversed and figured out next steps.
Once the passengers got out of the car, I saw that they were two young girls. One was wearing a satin pink dress. Her strap had been torn off. The other was wrapped in a blanket. Shreds of what remained of her dress hung around her calves.I could feel the blood drain from my face. I knew what I was looking at, but some part of me hoped it wasn’t true.
As we pulled away, our driver finally told us what had happened. These two girls had been kidnapped by a man, raped, robbed, and then left on the road side. Our driver had heard their cries for help and stopped to do the humane thing. The blanket the girl was wearing had been provided by the driver. He said she didn’t have any clothes.
It had been over a week that we were in Kenya as part of BOLT Safety Society’s humanitarian mission to both prevent and respond to sexual violence (boltsafety.org). A large focus of our work had involved speaking with local stakeholders, such as NGOs, professionals in the space, members of the community, and survivors. I could not have fathomed that I would come face-to-face with the aftermath of this crime in such proximity.
The week prior, we’d been in countless meetings and events where presenters shared their research into the status of violence in Kenya and the work many organizations on-ground have been doing to respond to this human rights crisis. That is, ultimately, what sexual violence is. It’s not a one-off, isolated crime that occurred to one person or a small group of people. It is an active, monstrous, human rights crisis that has plagued us on a global scale.
Some of the stakeholders we connected with included The International Roundtable for Sustainable Tea (THIRST), The Gender Violence Recovery Centre (GVRC), the Wangu Kanja Foundation, Githunguri Police Station and their Gender Desk, the Githunguri Children’s Office, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO), and Serene Hospital, which specializes in psychiatry. Two of the products of our time on-ground will be a research report, and a feature documentary, and speaking with this diverse range of experts partly served to gather intel for both.
One of the things I learned on-ground was that there are already many players in this space, and in fact, they are operating with a degree of innovation that the rest of the world is sleeping on. The ‘image’ of Africa sadly often boils down to the photograph of one sick, famished child. While this is part of the story, that’s all it is. A part. By walking in with assumptions based on a singular narrative, we fail to see the full story and unfortunately, provide incomplete solutions. Hence, we prioritized understanding what was really happening on-ground through our interactions.
Beyond the expert organizations, we also wanted to understand the challenges experienced by everyday citizens. We hence engaged with multiple focus groups where we spoke with girls and women from various age groups and demographics. Some were teen mothers. Some were survivors of sexual violence. Some were abandoned by their parents. Some were in school. Some were working and providing for themselves. Here, I learned so much about what it means to be resilient and to continue fighting for a better life. It is truly inspiring what some of these women are doing despite facing adversity. During one of our sessions, we used music as a way to break the ice. I sang a bhajan, Ziyaan sang a song, and then some of the girls showed us their dance moves. So, despite it all, they sing. And they dance. And they smile. And they laugh.
Asking questions and learning was one of our priorities. The other was ensuring we leave each space by giving them something of value, immediately. Through a partnership with Heels4Pads Foundation, we conducted workshops on topics of menstrual health, consent, personal safety, and self empowerment for over 200 people. We also made product and meal donations. For instance, Ziyaan and his team at For The Menstruator donated reusable menstrual hygiene products, while Monicah Muhoyah and the Heels4Pads team donated disposable pads. BOLT Safety was also able to donate nutritional gummies thanks to Canadian company, Herbaland. It was heartwarming to see little children sipping glasses of juice and nibbling on cookies, or to see a loaf of bread and soda in the hands of girls who’d skipped lunch to attend our workshop.
Here is the final lesson I will share. The magnitude of this crisis is so overwhelming that it is easier to accept the status quo than it is to make a meaningful change. However, sometimes change doesn’t have to be so grand. It could be as simple as playing soccer in the field with a child, or picking up and spinning around another. It’s as simple as showing small gestures of love and kindness. Small moments of humanity.
Rajputs have historically been, and continue to be, leaders in social impact. It is in our very blood to take care of people, and do everything within our power to continue fighting for a better world until the very end. So, wherever you are in the world, my dear brothers and sisters, let’s keep fighting the good fight.
The sun will rise on a new dawn. I’m sure of it.
About Vedanshi Vala
As Co-Founder and Executive Director of BOLT Safety Society, Vedanshi Vala actively leads grassroots efforts to foster safer and equitable communities, which has impacted over 23,700 people globally, with 90,400+ impressions across platforms. She has led her team’s on-ground work internationally in Canada, the USA, India, Turkey, Kenya, and Morocco towards sexual violence prevention and response. Vedanshi has been distinguished nationally as a L’Oréal Paris Woman of Worth. She was a delegate at the 67th session of the Commission on the Status of Women, held at United Nations Headquarters in New York.