Kenya: One woman’s relentless fight for human rights amid threats and reprisals

Women human rights defenders face an elevated risk of being attacked because of their human rights work, particularly those who are unaffiliated to any institution.

Wanjeri Nderu, a mother of three, is one such human rights defender.

A finance professional who chose to quit her well-paying job to work pro-bono on human rights, Wanjeri has been attacked and insulted.

In May 2015, she was accosted by a middle-aged man at a shopping mall in Nairobi’s Langata suburb, who shouted at her, ‘Wacha kelele, ama tutakumaliza’ (stop making noise otherwise we will finish [kill] you), before hitting her on the left eye, leaving her with a bruised and swollen face. She did not recognize the man, but he seemed to know exactly who she was. She immediately reported the assault to the police, but the case remains unresolved to this day.

She has also been a victim of verbal attacks. In one incident, she was trolled on Twitter and repeatedly insulted online, with language she found “extremely personally lewd, body shaming me and my family.” She said the group leader “kept on tagging more people on his insults to invite them to join in”, and that at least eight people took part in the trolling.

She was also arrested in May 2014 for participating in peaceful protest against MP’s demands for higher pay. In this instance she was able to convince the police to let her go as they were taking her to the police truck, and as soon as they did, she bravely returned to the protest.

Image of a tweet featuring a smiling woman flanked by two armed male police officers wearing riot protective gear. The tweet reads: #AmKenyan The closest I have ever come to a VVIP  'security escort'. I laughed my way out of jail! (I still wear all my protest T-shirts and they are many!) #ActiveCitizen #MyVoiceWillBeLOUDERIn2018 #KOT Image of a tweet featuring a smiling woman flanked by two armed male police officers wearing riot protective gear. The tweet reads: #AmKenyan The closest I have ever come to a VVIP  'security escort'. I laughed my way out of jail! (I still wear all my protest T-shirts and they are many!) #ActiveCitizen #MyVoiceWillBeLOUDERIn2018 #KOT
Wanjeri being escorted away from the police track after her arrest during a peaceful protest.

Wanjeri’s family has not been spared either. In 2015, an unidentified man threatened her husband with relocation at work - away from his family in Nairobi - to the remote northeastern county of Wajir, if she did not stop her human rights campaigns. It was at this point that he decided to leave his job. There have also been threats against her children. In one case, she says, some men she had noticed had been trailing her, had shown up at her children’s school.

Wanjeri suspects that attacks against her were precipitated by the following series of tweets, in which she alleged corruption by Kenyan politicians.

Image of several tweets about corruption Image of several tweets about corruption
Several tweets about corruption mentioning several individuals including politicians.

Wanjeri believes attacks against her have been visceral because she is a woman. All attacks against her were not about the content, rather it solely focused on her being a woman.

However, these threats and reprisals have not dampened her resolve. She continues to campaign for justice.

Since beginning her activism, Wanjeri has been involved in three separate campaigns.

Her first campaign is against extrajudicial executions by the police. The campaign’s hashtag on Twitter is #StopExtraJudicialKillings.

Since Wanjeri has built a considerable following on Twitter of more than 23,000 people, victims’ family members contact her to help establish their whereabouts of their loved ones, mostly young men picked up by police.

She was also at the forefront of the #FreeSSudan4 campaign to free four Kenyans who had been detained in South Sudan on charges of forgery and money laundering. She believed they were unjustly arrested after a rushed court case. The four, Ravi Ghaghda, Boniface Muriuki, Anthony Keya and Anthony Mwadime, were finally released in December 2017

Wanjeri’s third campaign advocated for free, peaceful and fair elections.  

Most of her campaigns are carried out online, where she commands a huge following, but some involve offline engagements, like visiting police stations when people are arbitrarily arrested. They reach out to her through her social media accounts, and depending on the nature of the case and the location, she will either go there personally and get more information from the police station, or ask her network of volunteers to go or refer the cases to local human rights organizations.

Journey to human rights

Wanjeri’s traces her decision to become a human rights defender to a chance encounter with a street child at a feeding centre where she had been volunteering. After a few minutes of conversation, the boy told her that he had been sexually assaulted.

She lost contact with the boy after their initial meeting, but not for lack of trying to keep in touch. She looked for him at the children’s feeding centre, and eventually at the Kenyatta National Hospital on the advice of other street children. But she still did not find him. She later learnt he had died, possibly as a result of complications arising from the sexual assault.

The guilt of having initially ignored the young boy’s plight haunted her, “I kept asking myself if there was anything I could have done. Perhaps if I had stepped in, he would still be alive,” she said.

This was Wanjeri’s turning point.

Impact

In March 2017, she was trailed by an unknown vehicle as she was leaving a late evening meeting heading home.

When she realized she was being trailed, she switched routes to throw them off, however, her pursuers were undeterred. She stopped at a shopping center and entered a cafe. The car trailing her double parked near her car. It was at that point that she called a taxi to take her home and used the back door of the café to get away. She collected her car the next day.

The biggest downside for her is “not being able to sleep well and sometimes, not sleeping at all!  When I get any of these episodes online, I am hardly able to sleep. I spend my nights worrying and dreading getting back online when morning comes.”

All this was taking an emotional toll on the family.

While remaining undeterred, Wanjeri was not prepared to put her family’s lives on the line. Wanjeri was forced to seek protection from human rights organizations after the attacks and threats got worse with the targeting of her husband and children.

She continues to engage her activism online from an undisclosed location where she has sought refuge. Her husband and the children have since joined her as well.

Wanjeri is a vanguard of a new generation of women unaffiliated activists, who are effectively working as freelancers or first responders in defense of human rights.