Gender Festival: Beyond lamentations we celebrate

“Sometimes the smallest victories in life are more rewarding than the greatest milestones.”  Katie Kacvinsky

“Beyond lamentation”...those were the first words as title to Betty Murungi’s presentation in the context of healing, peace building and unity on the first day of the Gender Festival, the first ever for Kenya. Those words stayed with me as I recalled some of the discussions around the gender festival planning back in early 2008 when the idea of the gender festival was presented as borrowing a leaf from our Tanzania sisters. That was a time when the post elections violence (PEV) was still very raw spot for Kenya and hence there was the question of, do we have the energy for a festival? What is there to celebrate? However, in the long run we were all in agreement, things may look grim but there is still a lot to celebrate. In fact, it was felt that after the PEV, all the reason for a festival, for a celebration. Throughout the 3 days event, these words kept lingering in my mind.

The Kenya Gender Festival 2009 was organized by a coalition of organizations working on women’s rights and gender. This was done over a period of more than one year on and off. I recall being in the first meeting and how difficult it was to visualize this coming true. Finally the dream came to fruition when the festival took place from 3rd to 6th June 2009. By the end of the 3-day event I couldn’t help but say “it was all worth it”! The broad theme for the Festival was ‘Celebrating diversity and promoting equality’ quite relevant to our Kenyan situation where there are diversities of different forms but which should be to unite not separate us. Throughout the festival, the diversity was quite evident yet the synergy was evident. There were young and quite elderly women and men, students and professionals; some gave talks or engaged in thrilling debates or exhibited either material items or talent in songs, dances, skits etc.
The sub themes for the 3 days were
1. Healing, peace building and unity.
2. Movement building in diverse society
3. Men for gender equality

I experienced, (for the festival was just that, experiencing) both lamentation and celebration. There was lamentation in the various discussions and experiences that were shared by different women and men at various points; but in all cases there was light after lamenting, the joy and celebration for having survived to tell the story. I particularly enjoyed the diversity in which different organisations presented their sessions and exhibitions. Some were discussions, others were participatory drama,  or debates while others were academic papers; for sure we are rich in ideas and diversity!! The presence of men, despite being outnumbered was quite a plus in a Kenyan context where gender is equated to women’s issues and seen as a domain for women. It was particularly impressive to listen to male speakers, actors and presenters in different forums, and listen to the same messages of men in support of gender equality.

It was touching as women and men told their life experiences on different issues that touch them and all in the society. I listened as a young woman told her experience of being gang raped and experienced a lot of stigma that led to her becoming an alcoholic. On realizing that she has a life to live, she not only left the alcohol as her consolation, but also made it her duty to help other women who may go through such traumatizing experiences. She now runs a foundation that gives post rape care and counseling and has impacted the lives of many would be victims to become survivors. Another told of the story of being infected with HIV but living positively to only tell the story, but to also make a lot of difference on the lives of HIV positive people who still experience a lot of stigma. There was more than lamentation, there were celebrations!

One of the other high points for me was the presence of so many young women at the festival both as participants and also taking up different roles. The Young Women’s Leadership Institute hosted a young women’s village which was a great attraction for the young and young at heart. I was impressed by the energetic discussions that were sparked by participatory theatre. The singing and dancing from the young women is still lingering in my mind as I sing ‘I’m a woman and I will never ever fail…’ which became like an anthem. My joy is that seeing young women so much at the heart of the women’s movement gives more cause to celebrate, that the cause will never die.

The experience of the Gender Festival made me realize, that I don’t want the women’s movement, the crusaders of gender equality to speak with one voice, but to speak in different voices in one spirit, with the same message!!!

It is not easy to laugh and cry at the same time, to count losses and gains at the same time, to look out in the very dark night and see the bright stars, but that was what the Gender Festival was for me! Yes, beyond lamentations, we celebrate.

We have come far and Aluta Continua!


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