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Deep Listening to Lift the Veil of Stigma & Shame – a Spotlight on Nyanam Widows in Kisumu, Kenya

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After almost three years of limited international travel, I had the privilege of traveling with colleagues to Kenya to visit with partners in March. I left with familiar feelings of hope, tremendous awe, and deep gratitude for the incredible visionary changemakers that the Imago Dei Fund is so fortunate to be able to support and learn from. As I often do after a trip I reflect on my key learnings and the linkages to other work we support and that I care deeply about around gender and norms change. On this particular trip, I was deeply affected by a visit with Nyannam, an organization founded and led by Jackie Odhiambo, that works with widows in rural Kenya. Widows in many places suffer from a very deep stigma and scorn and are often blamed and shamed for their husband’s death.

Before I left on my trip, I had started conceptualizing an essay that I was calling “Destigmatizing Eve.” It was an attempt to capture my thinking about how so much of the web of gender-based oppression that plagues our planet stems from the story of Eve and the ancient stigma that functions like a curse or a taboo rooted in millennia-old beliefs and myths that still live on in our collective consciousness. As I was listening to Jackie and her team share their own personal stories as well as what they have heard from the widowed women they serve, I literally could feel in their stories the lingering hold of this ancient man-made curse but also the light and love of awareness exposing and dispelling it. Jackie is now collaborating with me on a longer paper on this topic that uses her work at a case study. What touched me most about our day with Nyanam is the simplicity and humanity of their main “intervention”: deep listening. It is at the core of all they do and is the magic of their work. ~ Emily Nielsen Jones

Nyanam started in 2017 and grew out of an experience I had while working on a water project that led me to connect the dots between things I had experienced or witnessed growing up and what I was seeing in development work. Widows were being left behind in community projects. Their voices were unheard and often treated with neglect and disrespect due to social and cultural stigmas. Nyanam was started to change that. We work in Kisumu Kenya, where I grew up and where almost everyone on the Nyanam team is from, and like me most have a direct link to widows. In my case, I was raised by a team of widows: my mother, my aunt, and my grandmother. So I know the stigma the women we serve experience. Let me share a bit of context.

In Kenya, as in much of Africa and Asia, 1 in 3 widowed women experience societal stigma that devalues their humanity and creates social, economic and health losses in the lives of widows. Nearly half of the widows are young, aged below 60 years. Widowhood is also a gendered social identity. While widowed men often remarry within 2 years of the death of their spouse, women with deceased husbands remain widowed for a long time or forever. Cultural practices such as leviratic marriage require widows to remarry within the community of the deceased husband, constraining remarriage options. The culture is also patrilineal with children belonging to the family of the husband, making official remarriage a threat to mother-child relationships. Widows also worry that their children with the deceased husband might not be fully accepted in a new marriage. Some widows also discover new individual freedoms that they never experienced in marriage, making them prefer singlehood. As a result, for every one widower, there are at least eight widows in the country.

Structural stigma, expressed through culture, religious traditions and laws favor men over women during widowhood. Female widowhood can be seen as a root cause of health and wealth inequalities women experience in widowhood. When a husband dies, widows lose more than a husband. For example, they lose their social status and become inferior, they lose social relationships they had when their husband lived, and they also lose economic resources they enjoyed in their marriage. At a challenging time in a woman’s life when she can use as much support as can be offered, the contrary becomes true.

Like Emily, I see the link to the story of Eve. “Eve” is blamed for sin hence death entering the world. When a husband dies, it is common for the widow to be blamed for his death, regardless of the cause of death. Labeled ‘husband killer’, the widow is now believed to acquire a spiritual impurity (the shadow of death) that threatens the survival of her children and the wellbeing of her community. She becomes a ‘witch’, a ‘bad omen’, held responsible for all misfortunes that befall her family and community, and excluded from all forms of social events to keep ‘bad luck’ and death at bay. This discrimination remains unless she is purified through a sexual cleansing ritual, or performs whatever cleansing ritual her family demands.

Despite progress in laws that promote gender equality in Kenya, property laws applicable to women during widowhood uphold male dominance, including economic dominance, plunging widows into more poverty. Often, widowhood means the loss of a breadwinner and the expansion of a woman’s financial responsibilities. This situation is most desperate for women whose husbands prohibited their participation in the labor force, demanding they remain housewives as the husbands provide. The desperation deepens when the same widows suffer property disinheritance, with their land, animals and household effects grabbed by their in-laws who cling to patrilineal inheritance and see the widows as responsible for the death of their son thus undeserving of their son’s or family wealth. Although Kenya’s constitution protects women’s rights to inheritance, the Read More

Imago Dei Fund’s New Strategic Plan – An Update

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We are excited to share an update on the strategy planning process that our staff and trustees engaged in last year. With support from a facilitator, we started with a series of internal reflections and discussions to review Imago Dei Fund’s mission, core values and approach as well as to dig into the foundation’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. Our goal was to map out our strategic focus for the three years ahead (2023-2025). With an initial draft plan outlined by late 2022, we then took the time to engage nearly 100 grantee partners, peer funders, and program experts either in one-on-one calls or in small groups. This was a key part of our design process and so valuable to hear impressions of Imago Dei Fund’s current work and ideas for us going forward.

It is crystal clear to us that while it takes a lot of time, gathering input from many voices and vantage points is critical to deepening understanding and perspective. We are deeply appreciative of participants’ time—their feedback was rich and insightful, and our plan is better for it. A few examples of feedback that informed our plan:

  • The well-being of our grantee partners’ teams is top of mind and critical to success and our Keep the Spark Alive grants are important and fairly unique in the funding space.
  • We should use a justice and human rights approach in our support of those working to combat commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking.
  • We have a unique role to play as a bridge builder with secular funders for our faith-inspired grantee partners.
  • Grantee partners appreciate our relational approach and would like us to do more to influence others in philanthropy and to continue amplifying their work.
  • Partners encouraged us to increase direct engagement with and seek input from those with lived experience in the geographies and areas in which we fund.
  • Grantee partners want to be networked and to learn with and from each other and efforts to support connections and convenings should be informed by their needs.
  • Grantee partners are amazing resources both for each other and for helping to identify new partners for IDF as we grow.

This feedback was incredibly valuable in both affirming some of our initial thinking and pushing us even more.

What’s Next

As we look forward to the next three years, we will continue to center the needs of women and girls in our funding, strive to be bridge builders, and deepen our relational and holistic approach. In addition, we are looking forward to:

  • Expanding impact in our focus geographies through increased grantmaking in support of community-driven development that centers the dignity and agency of girls and women, working with more proximate funders and ecosystem players, and building out our impact investing;
  • Strengthening our learning, feedback, and communications through deepening our culture of learning, practicing trust-based and highly relational partnership, and communicating better with all our stakeholders; and
  • Improving our organizational design by aligning our team with these strategic priorities, enhancing our internal systems and culture, and diversifying our team and the voices informing our work and funding.

We are ever grateful for our partners and will continue to seek your feedback – and learn from it – throughout our strategy implementation process. Thank you! It’s good to be on this journey together.

Here’s the link to a summary version of our 3-year strategic plan.

Empowering Leaders to Dismantle Patriarchy: A Spotlight on the Kenya Reading Journey

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Last year, Imago Dei Fund’s Girl Child Long Walk project launched a pilot fellowship with 12 faith-inspired change agents from across the globe seeking to grow in awareness of the ancient roots of patriarchal cultural norms which stubbornly persist in our world, and ask “what is mine to do?” One of the fellows, Rev. Dr. Patrick Musembi, decided to take action by launching a Girl Child Long Walk reading journey in Kenya, and to invite village chiefs and assistant chiefs to explore together the ways that they can foster gender equality in their communities. We are honored to spotlight Patrick’s incredible story and recently awakened and contagious passion as a male ally working for gender equality.

My backstory

Societal change doesn’t happen overnight and is often a slow, painstaking process that spans generations. As the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu once said: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”

Growing up in rural Kenya, in a small village in the Kathiani region of Machakos, patriarchy was deeply woven into the fabric of our society. I grew up watching my sisters doing the thankless work of cooking and fetching water from strenuously long distances. Given my family didn’t keep a large herd of animals, the work for me and my brothers of looking after goats felt immensely easier. Although my father didn’t harbor any discriminatory feelings between boys and girls, patriarchy still seeped through. 

Poverty held us by the throat, keeping our finances meager and my father in constant debt. In the background, my unschooled mother supplemented my father’s income through a greengrocery business in the village square. She was up before the sun, beginning her lengthy journey to the town and ensuring our mouths were fed and our education well taken care of. However, in a culture that prioritized male education, my sisters did not get the privilege of proceeding beyond high school. I, on the other hand, went on to become ordained and an accomplished educator. 

As a child, I hardly realized all the dynamics I was witnessing, or the inequalities faced by my sisters. Nevertheless, hindsight has proved to be a powerful tool. Our unsung hero, my mother, plays center stage in this story. Raised in a family that didn’t see the value of education, she still managed to break through those conceptions and instill its importance in us. In my village, she is something of a revolutionary. Her blood, sweat and tears set my homestead apart from the rest; full of learned, determined and accomplished individuals who continue to challenge societal norms. 

She lit a fire in me that only grew brighter when I participated in the Girl Child Long Walk fellowship in 2021. The fellowship cemented something I always suspected to be true: this is what I was created to do. I will spare no effort in calling men in Kenya and in Africa to step back and make space for girls and women to grow and excel.

A missing link in community transformation

At the end of the fellowship, we were given the opportunity and support to work on a project of our choosing and I got inspired to do something new in my community with what felt like an untapped and missing constituency in the work of gender equality: the village chiefs and assistant chiefs.

After the fellowship was over, I adapted the Girl Child Long Walk reading journey into something we could use to reach this target audience. The program we launched enlisted 24 chiefs and assistant chiefs drawn from the three southeast Kenya Counties of Machakos, Makueni, and Kitui. These leaders are directly in touch with people at the grassroots level where ordinary life happens and where patriarchal gender norms persist within the invisible fabric of the family and the community and create change. They enforce government policies and officiate at various public forums including burials, school meetings, weddings, development forums, and public holidays. They have a right to call for baraza, community public gatherings to discuss important matters, and to share information with the public. 

This cadre of leadership is the unrecognized missing link in community transformation in general and also with respect to the traditional layer of society which all too often sanctions patriarchal norms that make girls and women so vulnerable to harmful practices, overwork, marginalization, sexual exploitation, and myriad forms of violence. These leaders are called on to arbitrate in most gender-based violence cases, marital and inheritance disputes, among others but they could do much more to galvanize great awareness of and action to address the pervasive nature of gender-based exploitation in our communities.

Local initiatives to safeguard and liberate girl children

The Kenya Reading Journey has inspired several local initiatives to transform gender norms and liberate the girl children in Kenya from needless oppression and violence. The administrators have committed themselves to mainstream issues related to girl children in their public engagement rather than sweep these under the carpet or treat them as a taboo topic that can’t be talked about. 

Some of the administrators have initiated specific programs to challenge prevailing gender customs and practices to safeguard and liberate girls in their communities. For example, three administrators have mapped key stakeholders to mobilize various groups to keep an eye out for harmful things happening to girls in their communities. As a result, two teenage girls in Makueni County have been rescued from early marriages and funds were raised to enroll them back in school in 2023.

An assistant chief in Makueni County brought together 274 girls to talk about what it means to be a girl in that community. She invited various professionals from the region to speak to the girls on various issues. Read More

Wishing You Holiday Hygge

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During this busy holiday season, our inboxes and our hearts can be overfull as we remember all that the year held while we gather with family, friends, and co-workers for some holiday cheer. At Imago Dei Fund, our hearts certainly are full as we look back on the global struggles of 2022 and the web of kindness and change that we are privileged to be a part of.

We spent a good portion of this year working on a strategic plan that will shape our work and priorities for the next three years. As part of this, we engaged in many stakeholder conversations with partners and friends. What a gift it has been to be on the receiving end of so many people’s time and wisdom! We are working on the final touches of this plan and look forward to sharing more in the new year.

In this busy and sacred season, our holiday greeting this year is short and sweet: we wish you something the Danish call hygge, which is more easily felt than explained. It is a feeling of coziness and wellbeing, a contentedness surrounded by simple things and/or the people you love. In our fast-paced, digitally over-connected world, hygge invites us to switch off our devices and return to the simple enjoyment of the moment at hand.


However busy you may be, however full your inbox or social calendar, whatever your longing for alleviating human suffering and changing unjust social structures, whatever heaviness may be burdening your heart, or whatever hopes you carry for the year ahead… this holiday season we wish you the simple pleasure of feeling cozy and peaceful in the refuge of the present moment.

We are grateful to be in the mix with so many incredible change-makers, like you, who make the world more kind, beautiful & safe.

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, & Happy New Year,
Ross and Emily

PS: In the spirit of rest, rejuvenation and hygge, the IDF offices will be closed Dec 26 – Jan 2. If you need anything before the end of the year, please reach out to your program partner before then. Otherwise, we’ll be back in touch in the new year.

Navigating the Challenges of Funding In and Around the Global Commercial Sex Industry

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Autumn greetings from all of us at the Imago Dei Fund. In the spirit of this month’s International Day of the Girl, we stand with partners who are doubling down to address the many gender regressions that have fallen so heavily on girls and women globally and have been exacerbated by the pandemic and the rise of patriarchal authoritarianism. Our main blog post is the first in a series on the stubborn problem of commercial sexual exploitation that persists around the globe and undermines all of the Sustainable Development Goals as well as our shared human quest for a just, free, and gender balanced world. Here at IDF, we are committed to continuing to do our part to support the deeper transformation of patriarchal norms that have for many centuries normalized sexual exploitation as tradition and “work” that too many girls and vulnerable people are born into and must accept. In the year 2022, let’s all bravely and carefully connect the dots and be on guard for any new narrative (whether in religious or progressive form) that sugarcoats and sanctions the oldest oppression in the history books as normal.
In solidarity,
Emily Nielsen Jones, Founding Partner & Trustee

Is the sex industry an empowering human right to be legalised and mainstreamed? Or patriarchal sexual exploitation?

About ten years ago, I went on one of my first donor trips with a group of women to Turkey. I stumbled upon an issue I’d hoped might fade away – an enthusiastic celebration of commercial ‘sex work’ framed as empowerment and a fundamental human right that should be normalized, mainstreamed, and fully legalised. As a feminist, mother of a young girl, and someone new in my philanthropic journey engaging with a gender-lens around the world, all this was hard to wrap my head and heart around.

Flash forwards a decade: today, off-the-radar, a well-funded movement is quietly gaining traction across the United States to fully legalise all aspects of prostitution. Not just the selling… but also the buying, pimping, and brothel-owning. You see it in New York, Oregon, Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, California, Hawaii, Maryland, Nevada, Ohio, Washington D.C. and more likely in the works. As World Without Exploitation co-founder Lauren Hersh describes: ‘Since 2020 these campaigns have been popping up across America so quickly, often under the guise of something else. Troubling as it is, we have seen self-admitted sex buyers bankrolling these campaigns. Many people don’t realise that these bills would dramatically increase the size and scope of the commercial sex trade, giving more power to pimps and sex buyers.’

What role does philanthropy play in this movement?

I’ve taken the time to digest various perspectives, which all seek to appeal to lofty values I hold dear: freedom, empowerment, dignity, etc. This isn’t an easy topic to navigate. There’s a lot of terminology and jargon. Sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish between wishful thinking and the un-sanitized facts on the ground. And I find myself pondering what really is philanthropy versus funding rooted in self-interest?

Thank you, Alliance magazine, for hosting this series promoting dialogue around a complex issue which deserves robust discourse and nuanced, systemic thinking to carefully consider the larger ramifications of policy decisions on both individuals and society.

Sadly, in many settings – including women’s philanthropy – this taboo topic’s been politely scrubbed off conference agendas. In many female and progressive-leaning spaces, the sex work is work and is empowering mindset is seen as a settled matter. At that conference I attended a decade ago, all organisations working to curb human trafficking and related harms of sexual exploitation were excluded from the agenda. Yet, I’ve found if you speak with people offline, many acknowledge misgivings but find it complicated to question what feels like a new orthodoxy.

‘Sex work divides feminist opinion like few others issues’, describes Frankie Miren. ‘The ideological clash – prostitution as violence against women vs simply a job – may never be resolved but where debate coalesces, around proposed legal systems, ideas become concrete and can be logically hashed out.’ We must not ignore this issue which impacts us all and the overall landscape of non-profit work many philanthropic sectors are funding. As it currently stands – not in some imagined future state – the commercial sex trade is a highly-lucrative, exploitative, global network unlikely to vanish anytime soon.

However, the conversation diverges around the role and nature of consent within an ‘industry’ created and perpetuated by a nexus of deeply entrenched, intersectional injustices and socioeconomic vulnerabilities. From a philanthropic perspective, the pressing quandary remains: Should we support approaches seeking to normalize/expand the sex trade’s growth and reach into society? Or efforts seeking to contain it?

The task is not to make – or win – some purist, abstract ideological debate over who sounds the most ‘feminist’ or ‘progressive.’ Rather, to get past the rhetoric to truly understand the systemic nature of the problem, the actual realities and competing values at play to carefully weigh the human impact of various approaches proposed.

A quick primer: three different directions:

There are three main ‘camps’ which have very different prescriptions of both the problem and the solution. They sometimes sound similar, so attention to nuance is critical.

1) FULL CRIMINALIZATION is enshrined in legal codes in most places globally. It makes illegal all aspects of commercial sex: the selling, buying, pimping, and brothel-owning.

2) FULL DECRIMINALIZATION would render legal all aspects of the sex trade noted above. Overall, it’s guided by a societal vision where ‘sex work’ is fully mainstreamed and normalized as any other line of work. Found in Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, certain regions of Mexico, and Thailand, the Decriminalize Sex Work approach is framed as an empowering choice between consenting adults calling for destigmatization and legalization to be made more safe. There are two streams within the full decriminalization camp: pro-sex work feminists/progressives and pro-‘adult entertainment’ business owners and sex buyers. These odd bedfellows converge on similar language that ‘sex work is work’ and use similar Read More

The Future of Democracy is Gender Equality

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Early in my philanthropic journey, I was privileged to have found my way to Women Moving Millions (WMM), a membership organization for people/organizations bringing a gender-lens to philanthropy. After two years of not meeting in person, WMM held its Annual Summit this past April and the conference theme—The Future of Democracy is Gender Equality—couldn’t have been more relevant and timely everywhere in our world as we have watched freedom slide backwards and authoritarian, patriarchal forces on the rise. Enjoy this blog post by the WMM CEO Sarah Haacke Byrd. – Emily Nielsen Jones, Founding Partner & Trustee

Let’s be bold in action.

That’s a wrap! What an incredible week of learning, inspiration, and transformation. Together with some of the leading experts and advocates working to advance gender and racial equality, we explored new ideas, perspectives, and solutions to realize gender equality.

This year’s Summit theme, The Future of Democracy is Gender Equality, was a call to attention to one of the greatest threats to gender equality; the weakening and unraveling of democracy. We cannot realize a gender equal world when democracy isn’t strong –and we can’t have strong democracies without equality.

Now is the time to acknowledge that gender equality and democracy are linked and that wherever women’s rights are under threat and retreat, so too is democracy. Building stronger democracies will depend on our ability to unlock greater giving on critical issues affecting women’s rights.

It will require the bold action of philanthropy to ensure women’s rights are treated not as a parallel or complementary strategy but instead placed at the center of national and global approaches to build a more equitable democracy. Indeed, women’s rights and participation are integral to the very integrity of democracy. As USAID Administrator Samatha Power stated: “if you want peace in this world, trust women to deliver it.”

For fifteen years, Women Moving Millions has modeled the transformative potential of a community of women coming together to do just that – to leverage their combined expertise, influence, and resources to advance gender equality. What unites us is our shared vision of a gender equal world – a world that is just, at peace, and flourishing. What drives us is our belief that as long as less than 2% of philanthropic giving goes toward organizations advancing gender equality, that world will remain out of reach.

From climate solutions to designing more inclusive economies, ensuring greater representation in the culture sector, bolstering women’s reproductive health and rights, and restoring peace and security, women are architecting solutions to the most significant challenges confronting democracy. Meanwhile, philanthropy has more resources and tools than ever before. And communities like Women Moving Millions are positioned to lead the way.

So let’s be ambitious. Let’s be bold in action and harness our collective power as a force for change. The next chapter, written on democracy’s triumph, will be written by women.

We cannot confront the growing assaults on democracy and gender equality without investing in the leadership, power, and influence of women at scale. Philanthropy must step up and finance the priorities on which the future of democracy depends. The future of democracy is gender equality.

“We cannot confront paternalistic, regressive assaults on gender equality and democracy without investing in women’s leadership, power, and influence. We must advocate for bold approaches to philanthropy and greater investment in our greatest agents of change: women.” – CEO @Sarah Haacke Byrd at #WMMSummit22. The Women Moving Millions community has bold plans for the future. #WMMSummit22

“If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women's rights and women's rights are human rights, once and for all.”
Hillary Rodham Clinton at the 1995 United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing