The men who are proud feminists

Girls from Elimu Project in Kibera perform a dance at the Jamhuri Grounds in Nairobi. The project was started by 33-year-old Mike Wamaya. PHOTO | COURTESY

What you need to know:

  • This years’ International Women’s Day theme #EachforEqual looks at ensuring each one of us creates a world of happier men and women who are truer to themselves.

  • Fortunately, more and more people are beginning to understand that being a feminist has nothing to do with hating men, and everything to do with equality between the sexes.
  • Even better, celebrity buzz has brought attention to women’s equality and men are championing gender equality.

I think we should all part ourselves in the back. We have come a long-long way in women empowerment. Okay, but not too hard. The journey is still far from over. There still exists many disparities between men and woman and a lot more needs to be done to abet violence against women.

For a long time, gender rights activists have been taunted as men haters. Fortunately, more and more people are beginning to understand that being a feminist has nothing to do with hating men, and everything to do with equality between the sexes. Even better, celebrity buzz has brought attention to women’s equality and men are championing gender equality.

Here are three men who are loud and proud feminists.

Mike Wamaya, 33, empowers girls through dance with Project Elimu, a social enterprise in Kibra, Nairobi

Mike Wamaya.

Right inside the gate of Project Elimu in Sarang’ombe area of Kibra is an expansive dance floor. Every evening and on the weekends, 400 girls from the slum come here to dance ballet. On one side of the floor is a makeshift spectator stand from where community members come to watch the girls dance.

“It isn’t about who can dance best, dance is a tool of self-actualisation. Everyone here is allowed to dance no matter their physiques,” 33-year-old Mike Wamaya, the founder of Project Elimu sums up his intention.

Mike is a professional dancer and dance is a big part of this social enterprise. When he set up this location three years ago, it was to teach dance and provide a safe space for girls in the sprawling slums. It has become much more.

“Teenage pregnancy was a big problem. I heard that the only way to stop it was to give sex education. I learnt that not having enough information on sexual and reproductive health was just one problem. The bigger problem was that girls thought very little of themselves making them vulnerable,” he explains.

The first thing that he teaches girls is how to stand straight, to be comfortable in their bodies. Then he talks to them about pride, about having a purpose as women. This way, when he finally gives them the responsibility of dance, they embrace it.

They say that no one has so little that they can’t give. This has been true for Mike. He grew up in Eastlands, Nairobi, in a poor background. He grew up fast. By the time he was 13, right after his KCPE exams, he found himself working in a jua kali garage in Eastlands. It was while here that he discovered dance and got a scholarship to study dance in Europe. He danced professionally for a few years before deciding to come home and help other children get the edge that he hadn’t got.

“If I made it without a proper education, anyone can. These children have no reason not to become the best versions of themselves.”

Mike’s social enterprise also hosts a sanitary pads programme dubbed the Smile Bank. For this, he partnered with Kulczyk Foundation a Poland based family aid organisation. The idea is that the girls do community work for which they earn points which are then converted to sanitary pads. In the event of an emergency, though, any girl can walk in and receive free sanitary pads.

He also runs a scholarship programme for vulnerable girls who are not A-students but who show potential and want to learn. 163 students are recipients every year.

“We also have a farming section where children learn to grow things and a computer lab where they pay just Sh10 per lesson,” he says.

It’s just 10am on a Wednesday when we take this interview and the centre is a flurry of activity. Mike insists that he has only been able to achieve this because of the support he has received from the community.

“That dance floor out there, parents built it. When we are having shows, parents sew our costumes and do our hair and make up for free.”

The bigger picture for him is children who can come up with inventions to benefit the community. Already, they have designed the ballet shoes and the school bags they use.

Tony Mwebia, 32, fights FGM through his Men End FGM Movement

Tony Mwebia.

Growing up in Meru, female genital mutilation was just something that 32-year-old Tony Mwebia had heard mentioned in class as a harmful cultural practice. Now, years later, he has dedicated his time to sensitising men on FGM.

“I first came face to face with the effects of FGM in 2012 when I was offered a job with an NGO where I had been interning. The law against FGM had just been passed and my team and I were tasked with sensitising refugees in Nairobi on the practice.”

He remembers one day at work when the team went to work in Eastleigh and he got to talk to the male Somali refugees. They told him about how their wives had undergone the procedure and suffered fistula, painful sex and the economic burden that the constant hospital visits occasioned by these complications laid on families.

“My turning point was one husband who lost his wife and newborn baby to birth complications because she had undergone infibulation which is the most extreme form of FGM. She bled to death.”

After this, he began wondering why he never saw any men speaking alongside survivors of FGM and yet there were all these stories out there. Soon after, he went to work with communities in Kuria where he saw armed men standing guard in case policemen showed up during the FGM ceremonies. He saw that no men were involved in the actual ceremony and realised that most of them had no idea of the details of what the procedure entailed.

In 2014, the sociology degree holder, began an online campaign to engage men and boys in the FGM conversation. Slowly, they went beyond the internet and began visiting communities. When he visited, he would take visual materials.

“I remember one time I projected a film showing the actual FGM process and most men couldn’t even sit through it. They were in shock. They had no idea how brutal the process actually is.”

He now works with other like-minded men on the cause. The bigger dream for him is to have boys sensitised on the issue when they are younger because when young boys have a change of heart, we will have a generational change of heart.

“FGM is an important conversation and we can’t afford to leave men out of it. A lot of communities enforce it so that their girl’s can seem more marriageable. Ignoring men when having this conversation is like a doctor treating symptoms but ignoring the disease.”

Abdullahi Bulle, 35, gives free pads to women and girls in the streets of Nairobi

Abdullahi Bulle.

When you walk into Abdullahi Bulle’s bookstore in The One building on Moi Avenue, the first thing you see, before you see the rows of books is the shelf holding about a dozen packets of various brands of sanitary pads and wet wipes. Above them is a green banner stating that ‘women are free to pick a pad.’

For a few months now, this 35-year-old father of one has been offering free pads to women in distress in Nairobi city centre.

“Every day, I have between three and 10 women come in to collect a pad or a box of pads. I do not ask any questions,” he says.

Giving away free pads was something that this banker turned entrepreneur stumbled into but he has now turned it into his cause.

“It was sometimes last year and I was delivering books to a client on Haile Selassie Avenue when I encountered a young girl in secondary school uniform struggling with luggage. When I asked how I could help, she told me that she was going to the bus station across town and didn’t have Sh50 to pay for a mkokoteni. I paid for a mkokoteni for her and went my way,” he recalls how it all began.

The fact that a girl going to school could not afford Sh50 stayed with him. What if someone with money decided to take advantage of her? Could she even afford the most basic of items like sanitary pads? He knew he had to do something. He decided to start with what he had. The next morning, before going to work, he went to a supermarket and bought a few packets of pads. Then he had a banner made saying that any woman needing free sanitary pads could collect some at his shop.

“I intended it to be just my own small way of giving back to society but it has now grown into something more,” he says.

Since he posted his initiative on his company social media pages in January, he has had responses from individuals as well as companies looking to chip in.

“Two sanitary pad manufactures reached out and are selling the pads to me at wholesale price. I have also had well-wishers donate pads,” he says.

Most important for him though is that people are finally beginning to have important conversations on menstruation which he calls a societal issue, not just a woman’s issue.

“I had a man call me from Marsabit the other day telling me that he is father of many girls and when budgeting for them, he has never thought about sanitary pads. He always thought that this is something that their mothers would deal with,” he says.

Has he, a Muslim man coming from a patriarchal community in Garissa, gotten any lash back for his cause?

“Not at all. I have had even men from my community calling me to touch base and send contributions,” he says.

The bigger dream for him is to see every girl in need have access to sanitary pads. To achieve this, he hopes to partner with schools all around the country.

“It will be a project where women are in charge at the ground level. This way, pads will not be used as bargaining chips by men with ulterior motives.”