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FROM BREAKING THE SILENCE TO BREAKING THE CYCLE – PROTECTING THE RIGHTS OF ABUSED WOMEN By Jacqueline Mogeni – COALITION ON VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN (KENYA) Introduction Violence against women must be addressed on multiple levels and in multiple sectors of society simultaneously, taking direction from local people on how women’s rights may be promoted in a given context1. When the Coalition on Violence Against Women (COVAW) was initialized in 1995, the clarion call was for women survivors and victims of violence to break the culture of silence in which violence within the private sphere was shrouded and surrounded. Members of COVAW held peaceful processions in urban centres to condemn all forms of violence against women. Campaigns were mounted to encourage women to speak out against the abuse, tribunals were also held to hear testimonies of survivors and to provide therapy and healing for survivors. For ten years COVAW worked with women activists, civil society groups, international organizations, governments, artists and the media to move this sociocultural phenomenon from a private space, in which it is often cloaked in shame, into the public sphere. Given the campaigns the exposure helped to provide the possibility to explore its impact on women, the family, communities and society at large, and to take action to address this gross violation of women’s human rights. COVAW worked with shelters in main towns in Kenya to provide temporary accommodation for women who managed to get out of abusive situations and needed a safe space from where they could heal and plan their next cause of action. Nevertheless, violence against women continued to and has remained pervasive and severe in the country and this necessitated COVAW’s shift to target the cycle of abuse which is rooted in community structures, practices, customs and way of life. From 2005 COVAW has been working with local community structures to rally support for promotion and protection of women’s rights. The approach holds communities responsible for the protection of women survivors of violence at the same time seeking to protect them from abuse within the existing community service provision structures which are both formal and informal. The approach has succeeded in building local movements against violence against women. Implementation of Breaking the Cycle Approach COVAW focused on giving back to communities the responsibility of protecting their wives, daughters, mothers, cousins and aunties. COVAW’s approach of focusing on local communities and the formal and informal structures succeeded in bringing together men and women committed to addressing the problem of domestic violence with a view to finding and creating a safe haven for women in the community. 1 United Nations document E/CN.4/2003/75. For a start the project carried out awareness raising and advocacy within the communities but also with governmental structures at local level namely the regular police, the court prosecutors, the local chiefs, the community opinion leaders, religious leaders, teachers, nurses and other medical practitioners. The intervention that targeted the service providers was informed by rapid surveys in the three specific areas where COVAW is working to establish the challenges that the survivors of violence faced. One challenge that was standard in all the three communities in Laikipia, Kajiado and Taita Taveta districts was that there were no shelters which could house women survivors of violence. COVAW’s intervention did not seek to come up with shelters but to challenge the local communities to take responsibility for the protection of women’s rights within the community structures. The project has succeeded in raising the communities awareness about the rights of women and the legal requirement for the protection of these rights. In Laikipia in a small village in Dol Dol for example community members who have been trained as community paralegals are well versed with the laws against gender based violence and women’s rights. They also know that whether women or girls can receive community support to ensure protection of their rights within the community through the existing structures. Some of the trained paralegals have rescued girls and women from abusive situations. The paralegals now say that people think twice before engaging in violent behavior in the family for fear of community opposition. Enhanced Roles of Women The project has through the process of group mobilization and advocacy enabled women to gradually gain the confidence to assert themselves. Many in the community believe that solving family problems should the responsibility of both husband and wife. Ultimately more women have gained more recognition and better position within the family. KEY LESSONS LEARNT Culture is dynamic. Violations of womens rights are often sanctioned under the cover of local cultural practices and norms, or by religions tenets that have been misinterpreted. People inherit the customs and traditions by which they live and rarely think to question them. Moreover, when a violation takes place within thehome, the abuse is effectively condoned by the tacit silence and passivity of the community and law-enforcement machinery. The project has demonstrated that even though people may appear traditional, they are often willing to change especially if that change will improve their lives. The process through which this occurs, however, is usually complex requiring patience, understanding and sustained effort. Understanding the context in which you are working is a critical first step. Understanding the traditions, values and beliefs of a society is a prerequisite to initiating change. For example, though the Community Paralegal Group consists of both men and women, there were times when some activities and tasks required the segregating of the sexes and this was acknowledged and used to women survivors’ advantage. Through the creation of all-female and all-male groups, sensitive topics could be introduced that would be inappropriate in a mixed-sex gathering. Similarly we worked with some women who were from the Islamic society, it was imperative to gain the support of the religious teachers in promoting the protection of the rights of women survivors and by extension the projects goals. The paralegals used religious precepts to raise awareness in the community and prompt changes in attitudes and behaviour. Do not sideline a particular group on the assumption that they will be opposed to the project. Never assume that a particular individual or group will be opposed to certain ideas before engaging them in discussion. In many cases, they can be won over. In some situations the community leaders and gatekeepers who seemed uncomfortable with the project later turned into staunch advocates once they understood the rationale behind it. Some even offered to house women survivors in their homes for a few days as they figured the way out of their situation. Moreover, through dialogue, ways can often be found to reconcile seemingly opposing views. The younger generation is an important target group, since they are often most receptive to new ideas. Moreover, they are typically the ones most directly affected by various forms of violence against women. Ultimately, it is only by reaching youth that the transmission of negative attitudes about women to the next generation can be curtailed. Unless men are actively involved, violence against women cannot be effectively addressed. Since men in Bangladesh tend to dominate relationships, their meaningful involvement is required in changing these attitudes. Moreover, mens support for womens empowerment is essential. Programmes should be geared to helping men understand that gains for women benefit the family and the wider community. Men’s attitudes and behaviours are strongly influenced by societal expectations. Hence, effectively addressing violence against women also requires that the community support programmes to eliminate it. Community gatekeepers and other influential figures can play an important role in raising awareness about the issue and encouraging and reinforcing male participation. Community ownership and involvement of the media help to ensure that changes will be long-lasting. In the early stages of the project, advocacy among gate-keepers and the creation of pressure groups was not welcomed. But after three years of implementation, the mechanisms for social change created through the project have become rooted in the community. Families now feel that social pressure groups are necessary. Violence against women is still largely considered a private matter, however communities are playing a pivotal role in bringing it out in the open and addressing it as a social issue. Project activities, along with exposure in the media, have changed the mindsets of men and others in the community. This, in addition to a sense of community ownership, ensures that the problem of violence against women will be effectively addressed over the long term. Working through the existing value system to find positive aspects of a culture that can be used to promote change. A project dealing with culturally sensitive issues must never assume that all traditions are harmful. The project gained effectiveness by highlighting certain religious values, for example, as well as taping into the tradition of listening to, relying on and respecting ones elders. Traditional folk music was successfully adapted to challenge violence against women along with the longstanding practice of courtyard gatherings. Project workers did not question the existing cultural heritage and value system. Rather, they high-lighted aspects of the culture that could be cultivated or adapted to promote project objectives. When it was realized that most women survivors just wanted their spouses to change, it became clear that the project need to focus its effort on the value system within the community and not the batterer. In our criminal justice system the inherent steps can generate survivor/ victim hostility from the rest of the society. Arrest of a batterer is not necessarily what the survivor wants; in most cases in the village she simply wants the police to remove her batterer from the home for the night. Mandatory arrest is the appropriate societal response, but it may create a class of unwilling or absent victim/witnesses. This is why involving the community members to hold the batterer accountable to the survivor first, to the community and to the police has been helpful in protecting the woman within her familiar surrounding. In the community it is about successfully prosecuting a case without the survivor's testimony. Community Support Group; This is a group of community members from one and sometimes two villages representing community leaders and gatekeepers, including religious leaders, local government officials, schoolteachers, CBO representatives, village elders, social workers, and youth leaders. The group meets once every four months and discusses problems and issues that arise during advocacy activities. The members devise solutions with help from the Coalition on Violence Against Women in collaboration with other government and non-governmental actors. Cultivating the support of local power structures at all stages of implementation. To ensure community involvement, it was necessary to first secure the support of local leaders, public officials, and influential peer groups. In Laikipia, Kajiado and Taita Taveta these included the village headmen , religious leaders, schoolteachers, village elders and local politicians, who were brought together through the Community Awareness Forums and became advocates for change in the community. The project was implemented in stages, and different goals were emphasized at different stages. As implementation proceeded, experiences from previous stages were consolidated and adjustments were made accordingly. Sustained support from gatekeepers and local power structures was essential in keeping the interest of the community/target group, therefore their input was always taken into consideration. It may not be possible to involve a wide spectrum of leaders at the pre-design or project preparation stage. However, they should be involved in project implementation. In Laikipia for example project activities were scheduled in consultation with community leadership. As a result, participation and ownership by the community was ensured. Using culturally acceptable language and communication tools that have appeal for a wide audience. In rural settings especially, people enjoy the stimulation provided by videos, folk music, folk drama and other art forms, which not only provide entertainment but convey messages that are remembered and repeated. In the training workshops sessions sometimes drama was used to bring home relevant messages. The audiences became so involved that many of them began singing and acting along with the performers. Many of these songs and dramas were created by local people so that the language, expressions and tones are familiar and create a lasting impression. Because of their appeal, the music and drama sessions were also held in the Community Support Group meetings. In addition, sessions were also arranged on various occasions, such as World Women Day, 16 Days of Activism Against Violence Against Women and community ceremonies, and play a key role in advocacy.