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On the Heels of Tragedy, Tirop’s Angels Have Hit the Ground Running

After Kenyan runner Agnes Tirop was murdered, her father and a group of her fellow athletes formed an organization to honor her, stop gender-based violence, and change societal norms.

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On the day Agnes Tirop was buried last October, she would have turned 26. She had set the women-only 10K record a month before in September, just one of her accomplishments as a professional runner.

The murder of Tirop shook Kenya (her husband has been charged). In response, a group of her fellow runners joined her father in creating the Tirop Angels Trust (known as Tirop’s Angels). The group is working to prevent violence against girls and women.

Board members include chairperson Viola Cheptoo, Carolyne Jepkosgei, Joan Chelimo, Joan Jepkorir, and Mary Keitany. In the months since Tirop’s death, they have held events to honor her and raise awareness of the problem of gender-based violence. But they are not stopping there: Their goal is to get to the root of the problem and change the societal norms that let gender-based violence fester and to improve the structures in place to respond when women need help.

Gender-based violence is a problem everywhere, but it is widespread in Kenya. “I’ve seen it myself, within my own house, with my mother and with my sisters,” Cheptoo told Women’s Running. “Some of my sisters have been brave enough to leave their relationships.”

A man beating a woman is seen not as abuse but as normal discipline, Cheptoo says. “It’s not taken seriously.” She adds that, typically, “men don’t stand up for women. When they see a woman getting beaten, they don’t do anything.”

Tirop’s Angels wants to change these norms. Board members have visited young people in training camps and schools in and around Iten, where Tirop lived, to talk about gender-based violence. They found that the girls were mostly aware of the problem, but the boys were less aware, Cheptoo says.

Cheptoo points out that, although gender-based violence against women is the most prevalent problem, boys and men also face violence. “They should be their brothers’ and sisters’ keepers,” Cheptoo says.

Although the problem is pervasive, the organization has already made some headway. Cheptoo says she has begun to see the conversation about gender-based violence shift. “Now, since we’ve been speaking out, all of these women say: This is not right. Women are waking up to see that this has been abuse all along,” she says. And women are saying they are not going to stay in relationships that are abusive, she says.

“It’s a cycle that’s passed down, and it should stop with our generation,” Cheptoo says.

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Building a Network of Support

               (Photo: Courtesy Tirop’s Angels)

Beyond raising awareness and mentoring young people, Tirop’s Angels will work to change the laws that deal with gender-based violence and to create safe spaces for women to speak up and get support.

“We want to change the laws in Kenya,” Cheptoo says. “Athletes have been complaining about the period that the perpetrator is held in jail,” because a husband who beats his wife is often released in 24 hours. “And then the woman is not safe,” she says.

Tirop’s Angels plans to work with members of parliament to make that happen. They also want to strengthen institutions to make them more effective, transparent, and accountable in addressing violence against women.

The group, with Nandi County government, is collecting data that’s been reported on gender-based violence and will use it to strengthen laws and their implementation. Other sources of this data, such as hospitals, will not share it, Cheptoo says. Tirop’s Angels plans to disseminate knowledge on what works to stop violence against women and to serve as a hub of knowledge on best practices.

Cheptoo says that after asking Iten officials, she found out that safe houses don’t exist. So Tirop’s Angels will work with local government to create them or find a way to open safe houses themselves, she says.

The organization also plans to start a 24-hour hotline and expand access to services for survivors, including legal assistance, psychosocial counseling, and health care. Such services are important because, when women seek help from people they know, they often don’t get it. For example, if a woman has been enduring violence and goes to her mother, her mother often tells her, “Go back home. He will change,” Cheptoo explains. Society expects women to give men time to change, and to keep families together, but the truth is that change might not come, or it might not come soon enough, she says.

In April, the body of runner Damaris Muthee, a woman who trained in Iten, was found, and police were reportedly searching for her boyfriend. Members of Tirop’s Angels joined others in the community for a peaceful walk for Muthee and met with government officials about the problem.

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Calling on Men

Initially, one of the group’s challenges was convincing men that its mission is positive, not anti-men or anti-marriage. “Now, we are gradually getting support from male athletes,” Cheptoo says. At first, “they thought it was not good for men. We are pro-marriage. We want happy relationships.”

But now men have started to stand up. “It was like a switch that just flipped in their heads,” Cheptoo says. “We want a partnership with men also.”

Male athletes, including Abel Kipchumba, Amos Kipruto, Lawrence Cherono, and Julien Wanders, have joined as members of Tirop’s Angels. Ethiopian Haile Gebrselassie also expressed his support recently, pointing out that gender-based violence is a significant problem in Ethiopia as well, Cheptoo says.

Other female athletes who have joined as members of Tirop’s Angels include Brenda Jepleting, Caroline Chepkwony, and Peres Jepchirchir.

Beyond Kenya

Tirop’s Angels has extended their outreach and advocacy internationally. Board members spoke on a panel at the Boston Marathon and another at the Adizero Road to Records event in Germany in April, where many people in the running community expressed their support for this cause, Cheptoo says.

Tirop set the world record for the 10K at last year’s Road to Records event, and Adidas renamed it the Agnes Jebet Tirop 10K this year.

The company has been supporting Tirop’s Angels, whose work aligns with the company’s With Women We Run initiative. “Tirop’s Angels is focused on eradicating gender-based violence in Kenya, and With Women We Run is focused on creating safe spaces for women in our global running communities,” says Rebecca Gough, senior manager of Adidas Running Communities.

The panels at Road to Records and the Boston Marathon helped introduce both Tirop’s Angels and With Women We Run to the global running community, Gough says. The discussions revolved around becoming better allies and better advocates for women’s safety as both groups work to increase awareness and education.

When members of Tirop’s Angels were on the panel with Adidas community leaders at Road to Records, “this was a really emotional conversation, but also a really inspiring conversation,” and it built momentum, Gough says. “We got some really great feedback from our male captains and our male coaches that said that they’ve just never explored this conversation before, and that’s really opened their eyes to how they can support female runners especially—but all runners, really—in a greater way.”

When Cheptoo won silver at the New York City Marathon in November, she ran in memory of Tirop and wore a logo with Tirop’s name on her kit. Other Adidas athletes will wear the logo as well. Now, Adidas is looking at ways to partner with Tirop’s Angels more in the future.

Runners can support Tirop’s Angels financially by donating (the group recently established a Kenyan bank account) and by becoming allies in this fight. “If you’re out running, run for women who can’t run themselves,” Cheptoo says. “Let us know that we have your support.”

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