Kenya Imagine Women: Pray the Devil Back to Hell (Review)

The rebels fought for resources. Charles Taylor fought to stay in power. Young boys were recruited to fight in a war they barely understood. And the women of Liberia, they fought for survival, theirs and Liberia’s.

Pray the Devil Back to Hell is a gripping, tear-jerking, yet empowering story of the resilience of the human spirit and the capacity of our survival instinct to triumph over the greatest challenges.

The film’s early scenes are set in 2003 when a group of Liberian women begin organizing themselves to get an audience with President Charles Taylor. Taylor was disinterested: his full attention lay in proving his military prowess as he fought rebels across the country. The women persisted: dressed in white dresses and white headscarves they gathered in hundreds and waited by the roadside for Taylor to pass by and notice them. For days, they continued meeting, until he finally relented.

Leymah Gbowee was one of these women. She says she was exhausted by war’s sorrows and destruction and yearned for a return of normalcy. Together with other women groups she formed the Liberian Mass Action for Peace, a coalition of women’s groups that included both a Christian and a Muslim women’s association. They were up against men who were not afraid of raping or killing women in their community. Their religious conviction was not unique however. As Gbowee says of Taylor, who would later be charged in an international court on actions committed during those violent times, “he could pray the devil back to hell.” Taylor like many Liberians went to church and prayed.

So these women took courage, prayed for peace and believed their prayers answered when Taylor finally agreed to meet with African leaders in Ghana for peace talks. Gbowee and hundreds of other women followed him there in eager anticipation.

To their dismay however, Taylor and the other warlords were not interested in ending the war. Resolving never to quit, the women decided to press on in faith, and thus began the sit-ins.

I spoke with the film’s award-winning director Gini Reticker.  She says, “the role of women is often neglected when telling history.” For years, international journalists covered the Liberian war, yet Reticker found very little footage on the struggle of the women of Liberia to end the war; this in spite of their very open and significant. It was not difficult to find them, they sat in market places, called on the president and even traveled to Ghana for peace talks. They were central to the peace effort, and it would be difficult to overstate their importance to the peace effort, and to compelling progress at the peace talks.

Reticker says she “made a point not to include violent images… its almost pornographic.” Instead through five women, of different vocations and backgrounds, the story of Liberia is told, or told anew. This retelling is different from the story most people know, for as Reticker says, the traditional approach has been informed by the fact that “the sight of a young Liberian man holding a gun is a more compelling story than that of a woman organizing for peace.”

In times of increasing global tensions, and endless news of strife and crises within countries, conflict and the potential for conflict threaten to disrupt more lives than they have in several decades. The example of this group of women in Liberia, determinedly waging peace against great odds gives many communities around the world, besieged by the trauma of war, the hope that they too can prevail.

For this reason, the film has among other places been shown in the Congo, in Iraq and in Darfur. Following the film’s screening women in Kurdistan and Georgia have written peace agendas for the future of their communities.

For victims of war, and particularly raped women, the film undoubtedly takes them back to those traumatic times, opening up old wounds, but perhaps also uniting and emboldening them and the rest of society in common resolve in their present struggles. These empowering stories, and the accounting of a lengthy healing process, are a testament to how far Liberia and the survivors of its civil war has come.

And for others the film will offer courage, hope and a determination that no struggle is too big to overcome.

 

(Photo Credit: Global Citizen Journey) (Video Credit: YouTube)

Kenya Imagine Women: Why Justice Must Be Served

Ruth Njeri

Ruth Njeri

Thanks to the reminders of the violence that was meted on thousands of innocent Kenyans in the period that is now known as Post Election Violence I am unlikely to sleep tonight. Two years ago seated in my Minnesota living room I listened in horror (emails and phone calls) to stories about women being raped. The reports on rape first started with the attacks that followed soon after the election results were announced — and continued as displaced women moved into camps away from their homes.

I was thousands of miles away, but so grossly affected by the unnecessary violence that that year I did not celebrate New Year’s Day. In fact, I was very angry with Kenyans who went out to celebrate the New Year that night.

A high school friend had just graduated from medical school and was now a doctor in a Kenyan hospital. Her voice broke every time she told me of the people she saw at the local hospitals. Thus began my email conversations with the wonderful women at the Gender Violence Recovery Centre  of the Nairobi Women’s Hospital. I learned that in just a little over two weeks (December 27th 2007 to 13th January 2008) the hospital had seen 100 victims of sexual violence: 40 of them were under 18. Children. The youngest of these was only four. A baby.

It is these true stories that inspired me to write about this violence that was largely unspoken off: to give a voice in these women’s words. This violence against women that is time and time again used in time of conflict.

So it is with renewed horror that I read in yesterday’s Daily Nation about Ruth Njeri whose husband was killed during the PEV. What’s more, she was raped several times, scalded with hot water and left for dead. As if this defilement of her person were not enough, Njeri discovered she was pregnant. That her counselors kept her pregnancy a secret from her is a subject for a different discussion:

She was tested, but the medical staff were evasive about the results although they continued counselling her.  After six months, Njeri wanted to terminate the pregnancy but was not allowed to.

Before all that Njeri and her husband were working-class Kenyans: business people

Here she describes how they raided her home. From her account it is obvious that their only interest was to kill her and her family; adding to the growing evidence that most of the PEV incidents were planned.  It is also curious that they were all dressed similarly.

“They were howling like dogs and were dressed in white T-shirts and red shorts,” she recalls. “I stood rooted to the ground with fear, knowing that these were the men my husband had referred to earlier. About seven of the men entered the compound and began kicking and pushing me into the house while the rest went away.”

Once inside the house, they took the little boy from Njeri’s husband and flung him against the wall. They then attacked her husband. “They were prepared and well-armed,” recalls Njeri. “They had machetes, rungus, arrows and whips. I cried for mercy, then pleaded, but they would not listen. I ran to the bedroom and got them Sh40,000.  I begged them to take the money and leave us but they just laughed.

“One of them snatched the money from me, smelt it and threw it in my face. He reached into his pockets and pulled out many Sh1,000 notes, ‘We don’t need your money, we have been paid well to do our job,’” he said.

And then like savages her attackers molested her. In turns.

Njeri was barely conscious when they began raping her in turns. But she remembers that each one would finish with her then help himself to some of the food she had cooked. Her last memory of that night is of the men pouring hot water on her naked body before leaving her for dead.

Perhaps, at the end of the day when we are done debating politics and laughing at the idiocy of the political elite, perhaps then we will think of Njeri and thousands of internally displaced persons whose only wish is that their lives might return to some normalcy and that those who masterminded the PEV would pay.

And for Njeri and her children the struggle continues.

Njeri finds herself swinging between depression and the will to rebuild her life.  “At times I look at our condition and wonder whether it will ever end, or what kind of punishment this is,” she cries. “Then I look at others who are worse off… for women who were raped and contracted Aids, it is a sure death sentence. Then I count my blessings and console myself that although I lost my husband and my property, I still have the son of the man I loved, and I consider Wanjiru a blessing and another reason for me to live.” 

This post appeared originally at Kenya Imagine: http://www.kenyaimagine.coedim/23-Fresh-Content/Politics-and-Governance/Why-Justice-Must-Be-Served.html/

(Photo Credit: Daily Nation)

Kenyan Women on a Sex Strike: Why They Did It

[Editors’ note: There’s been much talk and writing on the current `sex strike’ in Kenya. Here’s one version. Thanks to Kenyaimagine, www.kenyaimagine.com, and to the author, Nekessa Opoti, for permission to publish and for sharing.]

I must be getting wrong. Or maybe most people are missing the point of the sex strike.My first reaction when I heard about the sex strike was: how bold! what a statement! Still, I questioned their use of sex as a tool. And then I began to watch in dismay as the country reacted. Perhaps we all agree that Kenyan politicians need to get their act together. But sex is still a taboo; unspoken.

The backlash from Kenyans is not surprising. The chatter on social networking sites, and in email conversations, shows that many Kenyans do not believe that this was the right strategy.  But first let’s look at examples in recent history where women have gone on sex strikes to make political, human rights and economic statements.

In Naples last year, Neapolitan women sought to prevent their men from exploding fireworks at Christmas and New Year celebrations by denying them their conjugal rights. The campaign had the support of the local authorities as well as the Church; it seems to have succeeded.

In Colombia, there have been two serious attempts at the Lysistrata strategy.

In 1997 the BBC reported that, “Studies found that local gang members were drawn to criminality by the desire for status, power, and sexual attractiveness, not economic necessity, Colombian radio reported.”:

the chief of the Colombian army, appealed on national television to the wives and girlfriends of the Colombian left-wing guerrillas, drug traffickers, and paramilitaries. He urged them to deny sex to their menfolk until a cease fire was reached. At the same time, the mayor of Bogota, Antanas Mockus Civicas, declared the city a women-only zone for a night, suggesting men stay at home to reflect on violence. The Communists ridiculed these initiatives, pointing out that they numbered more than 2,000 females among their own ranks. Nonetheless, the measure, combined with democratic and diplomatic approaches, achieved a brief cease fire.

And in 2006,

…dozens of wives and girlfriends of gang members from Pereira (Colombia), started a sex strike called “La huelga de las piernas cruzadas” (the strike of crossed legs) to curb gang violence, in response to 480 deaths due to gang violence in that coffee region. According to spokesman Jennifer Bayer, the specific target was the strike was to force gang members to turn in their weapons in compliance with the law. According to them, many gang members were involved in violent crime for status and sexual attractiveness, and the strike sent the message that refusing to turn in the guns was not sexy.

In Poland in 1992:

….a newly elected Catholic prime minister made abortions illegal for the first time since the 1950s: since contraception was not widely available in the country, abortions had traditionally been the most prevalent method of birth control. When this became illegal, birth rates fell dramatically: Polish women refused sex for fear of getting pregnant. Since then, an anti-clerical government has replaced the Catholic one, at least in part as a result of the pro-choice backlash.

The following two cases have perhaps been the most effective.

In Liberia while the peace talks that eventually ended the civil war were in progress, it became clear to a group of concerned women that Charles Taylor’s side wasn’t taking the talks with the seriousness they deserved. So the women camped outside the parties’ door and refused to leave until a deal was made. The Ghanaian president met with the women, assured them of his support for their initiative, and promised that he would do his best to ensure that the talks would be taken seriously. The women, then, had external support. Watch (video below) the documentary “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” where the women explain how their sex strike worked: pressures in personal relationships pushed men to action against rebel leaders and prayer. Atieno Demo makes a powerful case for why the personal is political.

Iceland’s movement in in 1975 also received national prominence resulting in one of the first equality legislation in the world. Known as the “Women’s Day Off “, this was more than a sex strike: women stayed home from work to protest discriminatory wages.

 Several women organizations in Kenya, including FIDA, have banded together in a week-long sex ban in protest over the infighting plaguing the national unity government. Other groups in the coalition are Caucus for Women’s Leadership and Maendeleo ya Wanawake. (You can read their press release here ). The following are the demands from these women’s groups:

  • President Kibaki and Mr Odinga respect the people and nation of Kenya by “ending forthwith the little power games” that undermine the dignity, safety and democratic spaces of our country;
  • The President and PM give respect, full intent, interpretation and observation to the spirit and letter of the National Accord and Reconciliation;
  • A responsive, sensitive and people-driven leadership and coalition government that is decisive, clear about the country’s priorities, willing to sacrifice individual ambition for the greater good of the nation, a leadership that inspires confidence amongst the country’s people;
  • Fast-tracking of the reforms agenda, and,
  • Resignation of Vice-President Kalonzo Musyoka and refusal by him to be used to defeat the National Accord.

In Kenya, the situation is not as extreme as in Liberia; the behaviour which they want to stop has no direct connection with sex, as it seems to have had in Colombia; and, unlike Iceland, Colombia, Poland and Italy, Kenyan women don’t already have the power that might make the threat a threat a plausible one. Still, all that is necessary for the strike to succeed is for it to have an impact. And that it certainly will. It has drawn attention to the difficulties which Kenyan women face, and it has shown that they will not hesitate to use what power they have to collectively improve their lot.

There’s an argument to be made that Kenyan men interact with women intimately only when having, or seeking, sex. Women are deliberately shut out of almost every other influential position: decisions in the home, and state, are not only not theirs to make, they cannot even significantly influence them. So it seems that a woman’s power is limited to her relationship(s). But not even always, since we know that many women do not have the right to say no to sex, with their husbands, boyfriends, or bosses.

The feminists of G10 want them to use it, since that’s a key part of the power that women are able to command. It could be argued that this choice plays directly into the hands of antifeminists who will take it as confirmation of the stereotype that women are wily, good for nothing and so on. On the other hand, women are entitled to use the weapons at their disposal, within reason. There is nothing wrong, of itself, in witholding sex. And the antifeminists would find reason to oppose conceding women their rights whether or not women chose this strategy.

So why think that the strike will be a success? And, if it isn’t a success, what’s the point of engaging in it?

A double-edged sword: sex and power. By forcing a national conversation on a taboo topic, these Kenyan women have turned the lens back to Kenyans.

A theme begins to resonate: that a woman’s power only lies in her sexuality. The Daily Nation runs this headline: “The Strength of a Woman,” casting women as sex objects, that even when they are denying men sex, they can essentially only give and take away sex.

But sex is not what the strike is about. The strike is calling to action a government that is  not serving people.

A white-haired man, interviewed on television the next day, proclaimed, with no shame or embarrassment, that a woman’s duty from birth is to serve God and her man. And because women were denying men their rights, well, they should be beaten up. Several other comments I have seen are unworthy of discussion. But I will mention them nonetheless. That feminists are breakers of homes. Yes, the very feminists who are on strike because they are afraid of a repeat of the post election violence. That they might be lesbians and have no husbands or boyfriends; a very tired and irrelevant argument. That Kenyan politicians only sleep with their wives once or twice a year: power displaced.

Many people have wondered why non-political men should be “punished” for the sins of Kenya’s political class. If we are to use this argument then teachers, nurses, doctors, policemen and other civil servants should never go on strike because their pupils, patients et al are not responsible for their grievances.  Sex, unlike medical treatment and education, is not even a right. But wouldn’t it be great if men supported this strike, and demanded more from their government? The beginning of the framing of a continuing national crisis: a self-serving political class. But this, I understand, is wishful thinking on my part.

It is not just men who have missed the point of the strike. Muslim women in Mombasa, and Kenyan churches, have called the strike a reckless pronouncement that would lead to men divorcing their wives. A shame isn’t it? That sex, the kind in which a woman has no choice, is the glue that holds our families together.

I am afraid the joke is on us.

In Nigeria, Ekiti women have taken to a more expressive strike: women took to the streets half-naked last week as they protested delayed election results hoping to shame them into action, afterall noone wants to see their mother, grandmother, or aunts naked.

(Photo Credit: Pewee Flomoku / SFGate)