In 2011, the Graduate Student Volunteer Program was created to connect Columbia University students with volunteer opportunities at Human Rights Advocates Program (HRAP) alumni-led organizations around the globe. Since then, 17 Columbia University students have volunteered with HRAP alumni in countries including Georgia, India, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Uganda. In 2016, Columbia University students were also invited to volunteer at the organizations led by graduates of ISHR’s newest fellowship program, the Alliance on Historical Dialogue and Accountability.
The following is an excerpt from the blog post written by Akiko Kobayshi, a graduate student at the School of International and Public Affairs, who volunteered with HRAP alumni Esther Adhiambo at the Initiative for Equality and Non-Discrimination (INEND) in Kenya.
Founded by 2014 Advocate Esther Adhiambo after she completed HRAP, the Initiative for Equality and Non-Discrimination (INEND) strives to achieve a more inclusive society for sexual and gender minorities in the coastal region of Kenya by pursuing both bottom-up and top-down approaches.
In Kenya, homosexual conduct is considered illegal and the accused can face a maximum of 14 years in prison. Opinion leaders such as politicians and religious leaders have publicly condemned homosexuality and transgenderism. Public opinion towards sexual minorities is very hostile as well. The Pew Research Center reported 88 percent of people surveyed believed that homosexuality is “morally unacceptable.”
As the first step of INEND’s bottom-up approach, we targeted motorcycle taxi drivers who are known for their violence toward the LGBT community. Many young men who cannot find jobs in other industries work as motorcycle taxi drivers. INEND would like them to become allies of the LGBT community — they are on the ground 24/7 and know every little corner.
To understand how we can work with them, we conducted a survey to understand the motorcycle taxi drivers’ perceptions towards sexual and gender minorities and their reasons for assaulting them. Approximately 160 motorcycle taxi drivers were reached through two focus group discussions and a questionnaire. Their beliefs on why people “become gay” was interesting. They included peer pressure, imprisonment, witchcraft, heartbreaks, rape, gender separation at school, parental upbringing, and media influence. We also asked why they target the LGBT community and what kinds of programs might change their attitudes. Based on the findings from this survey, INEND is now developing plans how to engage the motorcycle taxi drivers to change their perceptions and to recruit them as human rights defenders.
Working with INEND for 10 weeks was a wonderful experience. I witnessed the discrimination and stigma people live with, the difficulties of tackling the taboos, and the commitment of people to change their society. I experienced the real-life application of international human rights law, which I am studying at Columbia. Working at a small NGO with a tight-knit team was very rewarding as I could see the direct contributions of my work to the organization. I also gained confidence to work independently and proactively.
School of International and Public Affairs