Muungano – the success story of the equality forum 

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Muungano gender forum held at Ekerenyo Grounds, Nyamira North Sub-County, Nyamira County Kenya on November 10, 2022.

Our expert Rosebellah Nyanchoka has witnessed how a community can come together to rise against violence. Nyanchoka has been involved in growing Muungano Equality Forum, established by International Solidarity Foundation (ISF), into a success story. Now she talks about how the forum has evolved in a few years to become a festival that travels from village to village, uniting hundreds of people. 

The idea of the forum is revolutionary; instead of trying to get people to participate in trainings, information is taken directly to their doorsteps. The forum travels around remote villages in Kisii, which lowers the barrier to participation. 

“When we started, there were only a handful of people involved,” Nyanchoka says. “Now the events held once a week gather hundreds of participants.” 

The growth has been tremendous, even explosive. At its peak, there have been up to 500 participants. “At that time, I didn’t know what to do with such a crowd,” Nyanchoka laughs. In a short amount of time, word about the forum has spread throughout the country. The organizers of the forum receive weekly suggestions on where the forum could be held next and what topics could be discussed there. 

Muungano –equality forum in Kenya November 2022. Photo: Browline Omondi 

Surprising methods against violence 

What is unique is not only where the forum is held, but also how it is organized. 

“Instead of the events consisting solely of lectures, we want to emphasize interaction and community. Whether it’s a woman or a man, poor or rich, young or old, everyone has an equal opportunity to express their opinions.” 

That’s where the name of the forum comes from: muungano means coming together and being together in Kiswahili. 

The stage is open even for advocates of female genital mutilation and those who do not see violence against women as a problem. It may initially seem like a paradoxical way to promote equality. When I ask about it, Nyanchoka explains the approach further: both sides have the opportunity to present their arguments in the discussion. The audience can then form their own opinions and decide which arguments are more credible. 

“Allowing counterarguments enables us to address the roots of the problem. Where do the unequal beliefs come from? That way, we can thoroughly persuade the audience,” Nyanchoka describes. 

“We trust that our arguments are stronger than those of the opposing side.” 

Instead of lectures, the atmosphere is conversational. People shout their comments from the audience. Music plays during the breaks. In addition, sensitive topics are addressed through humor and theater. 

Muungano –equality forum in Kenya November 2022. Photo: Browline Omondi  

It all starts with the structure of society 

Training officials is an important part of the work done by the forum, as the police and the church, for example, play a significant role in how cases related to gender-based violence are handled. 

“Many people still go to report cases of violence to their own church pastor. At that point, it’s important that the pastor can advise them to contact the police and report the case.” 

On the other hand, officials’ participation in the forum is also important for them to gain knowledge. A poorly conducted encounter can raise the threshold for reporting violence. 

“Many officials, like others, have grown up with the mindset that women’s statements don’t need to be taken seriously. For example, in a rape case, the victim may be laughed at and it may be stated that it’s not a real crime,” Nyanchoka sighs and continues in a low voice: 

“If every professional a woman encounters is dismissive of her experiences, violence will soon become a part of her everyday life.” 

As a result of unanswered pleas for help, a woman may also tell others who have experienced similar things that seeking help is not worthwhile. That’s why pastors, police officers, nurses, and representatives of the judiciary are also involved in the discussions at the forum. The participation of officials gives them an opportunity to hear people’s experiences and wishes, but it also shows that they take gender-based violence seriously. 

”Mapema ndio best”

When members of the local community and officials gather in the same arena to discuss previously silenced topics, asking for and receiving help becomes easier. With shared understanding, violence can be addressed not only with the seriousness the situation requires but also at an earlier stage. According to Nyanchoka, the best work against violence is preventive work. 

“Mapema ndio best,” Rosebellah sums up. The phrase, a combination of Kiswahili and English, roughly translates to “the earlier, the better.” The saying perfectly captures what Muungano Equality Forum is ultimately about: grassroots-level attitude change is the best way to permanently end violence.