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'Enter victims' reality' to combat violence against women: UNFPA

By Lisa Batiwalla

Reports that chronicle the extent and forms of violence against women are commonplace. However, a unique new report offers 10 case studies from across the globe that show how interventions that adapt to local contexts can actually reduce gender-based violence

From imams raising their voice against child marriage in Bangladesh to midwives who speak out against rape in Mauritania, a new report published by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) contains several examples of the effectiveness of understanding local cultures in the effort to curb violence against women, even in the most traditional societies.

'Programming to Address Violence Against Women' includes 10 country case studies that look at what's being done to help women who have suffered a variety of violent practices around the world, including rape in Mauritania, "survival sex" in war-torn Sierra Leone, female genital mutilation in Kenya, domestic violence in Mexico, child marriage and dowry in Bangladesh, and ritual slavery in Ghana. Colombia, Morocco, Romania and Turkey are other countries where UNFPA programmes to tackle gender-based violence report similar successes.

The report emphasises that communities can become critical of their own cultural practices if they're provided with locally-sourced evidence of the harm they cause women and their families. "In many of these cases, the extent of violence against women was so prevalent and so entrenched that it first seemed impossible to budge the prevailing mindset," says UNFPA's Executive Director Thoraya Obaid.

One of the main objectives of the UNFPA review was to achieve a better understanding of the impact of culturally-sensitive approaches on community ownership, and the sustainability of projects. "What we learned is that persistent advocacy targeting community leaders and the larger public can bring about huge changes in a relatively short time... Gender-based violence is not a given in any society," says Obaid. "Not even the most traditional ones. We have definitively proven that with these case histories."

Some key lessons

Understand local contexts and cultures

Violations of women's rights are often sanctioned under the cover of local cultural practices and norms. People inherit these customs and traditions, live by them and rarely think of questioning the status quo. The UNFPA report says that those working to combat violence against women must understand its role in a particular context, its origins, how it operates, myths associated with it, and the mechanisms and attitudes that perpetuate it. Exploring how victims themselves perceive this violence, how others perceive victims, and the consequences -- if any -- for the perpetrator are part of this process.

For instance, a successful project in Colombia began with a labour-intensive process of learning about communities. In the words of one project staff member, understanding the needs and aspirations of people requires that you 'enter their reality' -- that you spend the necessary time understanding their beliefs, motivations, perceptions and values -- without making judgements or casting blame.

Gather hard facts

Often, the logic of hard facts can convince people to think critically about issues that have long been avoided. In Romania , it was not until the results of a 1999 survey were broadcast by the media that domestic violence was acknowledged as a serious problem. Similarly, in Mauritania , West Africa , a UNFPA-initiated research project gathered data, for the first time in that country, on rape and other forms of sexual violence. The findings shed light on a problem that had previously gone unnoticed, and served as justification for subsequent action by policymakers and the government.

Culture is dynamic and people are willing to change

While most people may appear traditional, they are often willing to adopt new attitudes, behaviours or practices if they are convinced that such change will improve their lives, says the UNFPA report. In Kenya , for instance, women who traditionally performed female genital mutilation/cutting have turned into powerful allies in the fight against it. The creation of alternative livelihoods for these women and awareness-raising campaigns highlighting the dangers of the practice were important factors in their decision.

Separate the values underlying a harmful practice from the practice itself

Traditional practices serve specific functions in a community. When a practice is eliminated, for whatever reason, there can be an erosion of cultural values and identity associated with it. This, in turn, creates insecurity within a community, observes the UNFPA report. Yet it is also possible to devise alternative practices that serve the same functions but without causing harm.

In many countries, including Kenya , female genital mutilation is the culmination of a traditional initiation rite that provides instruction on how to conduct oneself in womanhood. Alternative rites of passage, developed by a Kenyan NGO, respect the value of the tradition and offer the same instruction, while rejecting the violence associated with it. Older Masai women volunteer to act as godmothers to girls who are coming of age. Over the course of five days, and in seclusion, the girls are encouraged to ask questions about sexual and reproductive health and are empowered to make informed decisions about their lives. They are also taught what their community expects of them as adults. The NGO believes the teachings are important and should continue -- without the mutilation.

Identify and build upon positive cultural values

When dealing with culturally sensitive issues, one should never assume that all customs and traditions are harmful. Indeed, many traditions are positive and can be used as powerful facilitators of change. One of the most effective strategies revealed by the case studies is encouraging programme workers to make an effort to understand local cultures, so they can use positive values from those cultures to make communities more sensitive to violence against women.

In Bangladesh , for example, the age-old practice of consulting with village elders was cultivated as a means to challenge violence against women. The chairman of the Union Council in Baragachha , Bangladesh , says he uses traditional religious precepts to influence abusive husbands who are also devout. He reminds such men of the respect accorded to mothers in the Koran -- that ' Paradise lies under the feet of the mother'-- and that the women they have just beaten are the mothers of their own children. He reports that this has been an effective message in encouraging behaviour change among men in his community.

Tap the resources of local NGOs

When tackling culturally sensitive issues, such as violence against women, local NGOs usually have an inherent advantage. They know the local culture, and their staff are often well-known and trusted by the community. This is especially important when undertaking the difficult job of changing deep-rooted perceptions and traditional practices.

In many countries, including Kenya , Mauritania , Mexico and Morocco , NGOs were instrumental in breaking the silence surrounding gender-based violence and were the first organisations to offer services to victims.

Engage local power structures like faith-based organisations

Engaging local leaders and opinion-makers and eliciting their support can provide access to a community that might otherwise be closed to outsiders. Early on in their work, UNFPA project directors sought the participation of religious leaders known to be progressive and flexible.

In Colombia , working with a Catholic organisation on reproductive health issues at first seemed counterproductive and risky. However, in a region with a strong Catholic tradition, a project centred around culture and rights could not distance itself from religious convictions and practices. Once project personnel came to terms with the fact that people understand and manage their sexuality from a set of cultural norms with deep religious roots, what at first seemed like a risk became an opportunity. Common ground -- the inherent dignity of human beings -- was established as the base from which two groups with different perspectives, UNFPA and a Catholic institution, could work together.

Target men, whose participation is key

Men are overwhelmingly the perpetrators of violence suffered by women. Yet even at the institutional level, the fight against gender-based violence has been dominated by women. One way to get more men on board is to make them the focus of sensitisation efforts and awareness campaigns.

Another is to solicit partners from sectors that are typically male domains, including law enforcement, the military and certain male-dominated sports. Encouraging influential male role models or celebrities to speak out on the issue is another strategy that can be used to garner support from the general male public.

In Turkey , the national football federation became a major partner in an advocacy campaign to stop violence against women. During the height of the football season, a captive audience of Turkish men sitting in front of their television sets watched as players donned t-shirts and paraded banners protesting violence against women.

In Mures district, in Romania , the neighbourhood police, who were previously regarded with distrust by the community, have become the Mures Crisis Centre's most important allies. In recent years, 20% of the centre's clients were referred by the neighbourhood police. Local law enforcement officers are also playing an important role in prevention by checking in on the homes of former victims.

Position gender violence as a public health priority

Though cultural, social and economic factors may all contribute to violence against women, positioning the problem as a public health priority has proved an effective strategy in addressing it, says the UNFPA report. This approach can be justified in terms of the costs and consequences of violence to women's health, including lost work, time inside or outside the home, medical bills, chronic, undiagnosed pain, forced pregnancies, sexually-transmitted infections, abortion and depression.

One benefit of approaching the problem through the health system is that it puts the material and human resources of the healthcare network at the service of women survivors.

In Morocco , the health sector is becoming a key partner in implementing a national strategy to combat violence against women. Units for identifying and treating women survivors have been piloted in two of the largest hospitals in Casablanca and Rabat.

Involve the media in creating awareness

Personal accounts of violence against women give a human face to the problem and are particularly effective in conveying the message that such violence is unacceptable. In many countries, the media is keen to cover such stories, partly because of their sensational value. In Turkey , the country's largest circulation newspaper initiated a campaign to fight violence against women, only to recognise later that it was a major contributor to the sexist attitudes that perpetuate it. The newspaper now evaluates every article from a gender perspective and has instituted related training for its journalists.


Tackling the twin challenges of child marriage and dowry

In Bangladeshi society generally, only physical assault that causes bodily harm is considered a crime. Domestic violence is widely regarded as a private affair and is therefore largely invisible. Though illegal, child marriage and dowry are major contributory factors to the problem of domestic violence. Laws against these practices have proven difficult to enforce, especially in rural areas where traditions have a stranglehold on social life.

However, in Paba upazila , which formerly had the highest incidence of violence against women in the Rajshahi district, people have come to understand violence against women from a broader perspective (including psychological abuse), and it is now recognised as a punishable offence.

'Advocacy to End Gender-based Violence through the MoWCA', an awareness and advocacy project implemented by the Ministry of Women's and Children's Affairs, became operational in April 2003 and was completed in December 2005. The project was carried out in 12 upazilas , or sub-districts, throughout the country, reaching an estimated 2.4 million people.

In Paba, the project succeeded in bringing together men and women from all walks of life to discuss the issue of violence against women and to find solutions to the problem. Attendance was impressive in spite of heavy daily workloads.

People in Paba now know that survivors of domestic violence, whether women or girls, can receive legal support by contacting members of the union council (the lowest elected unit of the local government body), schoolteachers, the upazila women's affairs officer and even the upazila nirbahi officer (the administrative head of the upazila ).

Many, however, report that the need for legal action no longer arises since community pressure appears successful in preventing and settling violence-related issues. The head of the upazila says that people now think twice before engaging in violent behaviour in the family for fear of community opposition.

Also as a result of the project, the judges that register Muslim marriages, known as kuzat , have become more circumspect in their behaviour. By law, kuzat cannot register a marriage if the bride or groom is underage. However, in the past, birthdates were frequently falsified at the parents' request. Today, kuzat are afraid to falsify documents, fearing that the community will challenge them and that they could be prosecuted for violation of the Child Marriage Restraint Act.


Midwives end the silence on rape

As recently as 2003, survivors of rape in Mauritania , in West Africa , were thrown in jail while the perpetrators went free. Correcting that gross injustice -- and getting society to recognise the problem of rape at all -- began with the grassroots efforts of four Mauritanian midwives who could no longer ignore the stories they were hearing from their clients.

With UNFPA support, the first statistics on sexual violence in Mauritania were collected, and a centre was established to respond to the multiple needs of survivors. Breaking the taboo surrounding the discussion of rape was the first step in addressing the problem.

The project was implemented by the Mauritanian Association for Mother and Child Health (AMSME), a local NGO, and supported by the efforts of the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs.

Since 2002, AMSME has assisted 131 survivors of sexual violence. In 2000, no rape incidents were reported to the authorities. That percentage has risen each year, reaching 100% of known cases by 2005. According to the police chief in El Mina district, there has been an 85% drop in the incidence of rape in his district since the project started.

This is attributed to advocacy campaigns targeting judges, the police and other authorities that now acknowledge the existence of violence against women and are demonstrating greater sensitivity to victims and their families.

Rape victims used to be regarded as perpetrators who incited the act. Almost all of the women and girls who reported being raped were accused of fornication and ended up in jail. Since 2003, however, no rape victim has been sent to prison. As a result of training, the police are now more sympathetic to victims, and communities are more tolerant.

InfoChange News and Features, March 2007