16Days: The Male Champion in Me

When we talk about gender-based violence, people still think that it’s a woman’s responsibility to spearhead advocacy movements. Men are often the perpetrators of GBV, and so it’s very important that men stand up as advocates.

Today, we reach the end of the 2018 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence.

Violence against women has recently taken on new, more sophisticated forms. An increasing number of women are, for instance, reporting cyber-bullying and abuse through social media and smartphones.
We need to have ‘male action groups’ consisting of young men and boys from all walks of life – rich, poor, from urban or rural communities, black and white. Groups must be formed or strengthened to raise awareness of positive fatherhood, and to educate community members about healthier and more equitable behaviors for men and women.
Investing in empowering male peer educators and male champions of change to prevent GBV can go a long way in communities that are deeply influenced by cultural and traditional norms.

There is urgent need for community members to hold each other accountable with women and men working together for greater gender equality.

During one of the community dialogues conducted by Peer To Peer Uganda in Buyende District, Uganda, one of the male champions explained how cultural norms, myths and misconceptions discourage gender equality and equity in his community.

To tackle this, male champions are empowered and equipped with information, so that they in turn can sensitize communities about sexual and reproductive health issues.
Today in Uganda, alcohol and drug substance abuse are among the leading cause of domestic violence in homes. Ineffective laws also pose a big challenge to the fight against gender-based violence. Laws such as the Penal Code (Amendment) Act 2007, the Domestic Violence Act 2010, the Sexual Offences Bill and the Marriage Bill do not address key aspects of gender-based violence. For example, none of these laws criminalize marital rape.
Men and women – including boys and girls both in and out of school – must be reached with knowledge and information on gender-based violence. Health facilities, local leaders, police, policy makers and government need to work together to put an end to GBV, and creating male champions will play a critical role in stamping out GBV in our communities.

Have we Forgotten what Feminism Really Means?

Feminism: a controversial word that still makes many people’s eyes roll.

There’s a misconception about feminism and so in my first blog post, I’d like to share my point of view. 

Feminism is NOT a movement aimed at destroying men, but at destroying the patriarchal ideas that are cemented in society. Feminism is NOT aimed at making men lesser than women, but at improving the status of being a woman so that it’s equal to that of being a man.

Feminism is NOT about treating men as trash, but rather pointing out the ‘trash’ things that some men do that increase the degradation of women. Feminism is NOT about reversing the status quo and oppressing men, but about challenging the status quo to stop oppressing women.

I’d like to talk about an important issue within feminism: gender-based violence. This is a sensitive topic all over the world, because the idea of rape, in particular, has been non-existent in the past. Rape was not rape. Rape was a woman who had ‘asked for it’. It was shameful and women were resented for being abused. Rape was not a topic up for discussion.

Recently, with movements like #MeToo, more and more people have been sharing their experiences of sexual abuse. It has become a more openly discussed topic now than ever before.

Many women have spoken up and made accusations, and in response (to no one’s surprise) came comments such as “she’s lying”, “why only come out now?”, “she’s trying to sabotage an innocent man”, “what was she wearing?”, “she was drunk yes, but she consented so it’s not rape”. The list goes on.

To anyone asking the question, if a woman was raped 30 years ago, why only come out now? I can give you an answer – rape was not up for discussion in the past. As soon as it became a topic that was no longer so much of a taboo, and as soon as more people were supporting women who sought justice for the offence committed against them, women decided it was time.

Time to stop holding back and to stop feeling guilty for someone else’s wrongs. Time to use their voices and turn the tables on the powerful men who thought they could get away with abuse because “she was asking for it” or “she consented” (even though she had been underaged or intoxicated), or “how could I have controlled myself with her looking like that?”.

Men who don’t rape, don’t abuse, don’t seek superiority, it’s also your job to stand up against those who do.

If you are a man who supports equality for all, doesn’t support patriarchal views on sexual abuse, doesn’t treat women as objects, doesn’t stereotype women as emotional and unfit to be in charge, then YOU ARE A FEMINIST.

Being a feminist is not just for women, but for all who support equality. 

If you are sexualizing a woman because of what she wears, and if you think that it gives you the right to sexually abuse her, the problem is with you, not with her.

If you see intoxicated consent as consent, you are mistaken.

If you think that an underage child’s consent gives you any rights over her, you are wrong.

And if you think that the patriarchal ideas of society will protect you from justice, then again, you are mistaken.

The movements will not stop, feminism will not stop and you will not beat them. So, educate yourself on equality for all, on the accurate statistics of rapes and sexual assaults, on the reality for women in the world. You might surprise yourself and find that feminism is not a tool to defeat the male species, but rather to empower all people in the world to enjoy equal rights and freedom of choice.

Who knows, whether male or female, you might just find that you are a feminist.

Tip of the Iceberg: Sexual Violence in Mexico

On November 4th, a young woman from Mexico named Renata Sandoval posted a disturbing story on Facebook.

She wrote about being drugged by a classmate from the Universidad Autónoma de Guadalajara (UAG) in a local bar. The story has gone viral and has helped other victims of sexual violence and assault to talk about their experiences. Here’s a translation of what Renata wrote:

“After a long time, I’ve finally decided to talk about a terrible experience I had. I’ve decided to speak to avoid things like this happening in the future, so we can be wary, and to remind us that nobody is exempt from experiences like this.

It was a Friday and me and some classmates decided to go to a bar and have some drinks. Just a regular casual night with my school friends.

The night started. Everything seemed normal. One of the girls (Mónica Coral Zamudio Astorga) wanted to take some pictures in the restroom mirror and asked us to go with her. No problem, we do this all the time. Aarón Fabián (potential rapist) and another male friend waited for us at our table. Aarón was one of the most benevolent guys I’d ever met. He wouldn’t hurt a fly. He was the best student of our medicine class. I never felt anything but trust towards him.

The thing is that Aarón had previously talked with Mónica and plotted to distract me so he could pour a drug in my drink. Meanwhile, in the restroom, we took some pictures, chatted for a while and went back.

Mónica insisted on putting a straw in my drink to ‘avoid confusion’. She knew about the drug and didn’t want to accidentally drink from my glass. Aarón started to act very weirdly, urging me to drink and putting my glass in my face.

Within minutes I started to feel extremely hot like never before. My hair felt like fire when it touched my back. I wanted to tear my clothes off. My mind was so numb I could barely tie my hair to ease the heat. I was in despair, so I asked my guardian angel Carolina to call an Uber and escort me home.

As Carolina told the rest of the group we were leaving, Aarón immediately insisted on taking me home but Carolina told him the Uber was on its way. As soon as I stepped out of the bar I was so disoriented. I could barely stand and I wanted to puke.

When the Uber arrived, Aarón stepped into the vehicle insisting he wanted to make sure I would be ok. During the trip, Aarón tried to get close to me and asked Carolina to go to his home instead, as it was closer, but she told him that my parents would be waiting for me. And as we got to my home, he insisted on carry me upstairs to my room, but Carolina dismissed him, took my shoes off and led me to my room.

We thought it was someone working on the bar who had put something my drink, as we never thought one of our classmates would do that to any of us.

Some days later, a friend called me. He said he wanted to tell me something, and that he just found out something very important. He told me about how Aarón and Mónica had plotted to drug me so he could rape me.

I was shocked. It was impossible. Aarón – who I considered my friend – wanted to rape me. I asked my friend to call Aarón and trick him into talking about his plans again so I could hear it. He didn’t sound regretful at all. I also asked my friend to call Mónica and she confessed her part without knowing I was listening.

I was baffled. Disappointed. How on earth could my own friends would do something like that? What would have happened if I was allergic to the drug? What if he overdosed me? What would have happened if Carolina hadn’t been there to help me?

When I finally gathered strength to confront Aarón, he was so casual about it. “It was just a little push, Renata.” He made it clear that he thought there was something between us and the only thing missing was a little spark to light up “our thing”.

Fortunately, I’m safe. He couldn’t abuse me. But things like this happen everyday, and sadly not every victim is as lucky as I am. We always think a rapist is some random dude in a dark alley, not a close person, not a friend.

Lastly, think about this: Aarón will be a doctor someday. What if you take your daughter for a checkup with him? What if someday he is a powerful man? He now walks free, as if nothing happened. #MeToo”

One Twitter user, who has been following the story since the beginning, has been urging other victims to tell their stories and to demand answers. By now, several national media outlets have already covered Renata’s story and tried to contact a representative of the university, but they have remained adamantly silent about it.

All sort of stories have emerged. Teachers blackmailing their female students, systemic harassment towards openly gay students, silencing ‘progressive’ conferences and topics, constant misogynistic ‘hall chat’ with no consequences, and discrimination and silencing of non-catholic students, just to name a few.

It’s been almost a month now, and the university has not only gone completely silent regarding any of the accusations, but they have also locked their social media accounts and blocked anyone who mentions the topic on those platforms.

Students have tried asking for answers personally, but the UAG’s stance has been to protect Aarón – he is one of their most brilliant students. As time passes, up to 150 accusations from different women have been gathered.

Some people have pointed out that misogyny has been present in the UAG since its foundation. This school was founded by Antonio Leaño Alvarez del Castillo in 1935, as the result of religious and political differences within the government’s stance to make all public education socialist and non-religious.

As a renowned ultra-catholic businessman, Álvarez was a prominent figure in Mexico’s politics. It was during Vicente Fox’s presidency when Álvarez’s power and influence skyrocketed. Vicente Fox was a member of Partido Acción Nacional, a right-wing party in Mexico, and during Fox’s presidency Álvarez funded the rebirth of El Yunque (The Anvil) – an extreme right-wing  group that praises Nazi and Cristero ideologies alike.

In 2016, a new branch of El Yunque called National Front for the Family was created to lobby, rally and vote against policies like abortion, reproductive rights, same sex marriage and sexual education in public elementary schools. I believe this is extremely relevant to Renata’s story, as UAG directives share the same repressive ideology as these groups.

Take a look at these examples from the UAG Internal Conduct Code:

  • The use of provocative clothing (transparent or worn-out garments, short skirts or visible or absent underwear) is strictly forbidden, as it goes against moral and good customs and may provoke other students.
  • Male students are forbidden from wearing earrings and/or any effeminate garment, as it goes against the ideal realization of manliness (Article 14 – Appendix 1)

Renata’s story is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to sexual violence in Mexico.

The fact that the UAG has opted to remain silent while they wait for people to forget about this issue makes it clear that they aren’t willing to act against the aggressors.

In a country like Mexico, where more than two women are murdered daily, remaining passive against sexual violence can only mean complicity at best. Women are killed and raped because there are no consequences, and because men can get away with actions like Aarón’s – safe in the knowledge that institutions care more about their grades than their abhorrent behavior.

To learn more, you can check out this Change.org petition and #AbusoEnLaUAG.

Health Care Workers Matter for Gender Based Violence

It was 10:30 pm on a Monday night.

After a long day at work, I was preparing to go to bed. I usually read before I go to sleep and I’d been trying to finish one book for ages but other things kept coming up. I hoped and prayed tonight would be the night, but the universe had other plans – as always.

My cell phone beeped: “Doctor, it’s an emergency.’’ 

I flung myself out of the bed and tried to reach the hospital as quickly as I could. The patient was a married 27-year-old woman who had sustained major injuries after accidentally burning herself while cooking.

“60 percentage burn,” I deduced, after taking the patient’s history and a physical assessment. But somewhere inside, I knew this wasn’t an accident and I felt sure there was more to the story.

I started with the patient’s family members. Unsurprisingly, upon enquiry they maintained their stance and kept trying to convince me that their daughter-in-law burned herself while preparing the meal for the family. I decided to talk in confidence with the victim, but she was hesitant to break her silence too.

One day, over the course of providing her with routine care, the woman broke down into tears and alleged that her in-laws had set her on fire for dowry.

In a country like Nepal, speaking out about gender-based violence (GBV) is exceptionally difficult because of the shame, stigma and pressure from families and communities preventing victims from reporting abuse and seeking appropriate services.

Victims are often afraid of disclosing or reporting violence because of the consequences they fear will follow.

In turn, silence can aggravate the situation for survivors, leaving them with prolonged mental and physical suffering.

Nepal has a very high incidence of gender-based violence. And while everyone – regardless of gender – can be affected, women remain the main victims. It is difficult to understand the gravity of GBV in Nepal as many of these cases go unreported due to the silence maintained by victims and perpetrators.

GBV remains one of the most rigorous challenges to women’s health and well-being. It can take many different forms, like physical, sexual, emotional or psychological. The causes of gender based violence are multi-dimensional, and include social, political, economic, cultural and religious factors.

Dealing with survivors of GBV can be a very challenging and sensitive task; starting from acknowledging and identifying the violence to asking relevant questions, without being too intrusive or judgmental at all.

Like me, a wide range of health professionals are likely to come into contact with individuals who have experienced GBV. Health workers are in a unique position to help and heal the survivors of GBV, provided they have the knowledge to recognize the signs. Most of the time, health professionals are likely to be the first point of contact for GBV victims.

But are we, as health workers, equipped with the necessary skills to deal with GBV?

While staff and facilities play a key role in health delivery systems for GBV victims, their efforts will have limited impact unless there are specific policies on the issue of GBV to guide the integration of the response to GBV into health care.

One important approach is to specify the role of health care professionals, and to provide guidance and tools. For instance, the World Health Organization has developed guidelines for in-service training of health care providers on intimate partner and sexual violence against women, specifically. The guidelines are based on systematic reviews of evidence, and cover:

• identification and clinical care for intimate partner violence
• clinical care for sexual assault
• training relating to intimate partner violence and sexual assault against women
• policy and programmatic approaches to delivering services
• mandatory reporting of intimate partner violence

The guidelines aim to raise awareness of violence against women among health-care providers and policy-makers, so that they better understand the need for an appropriate health-sector response. They provide standards that can form the basis for national guidelines, and for integrating these issues into health-care provider education.

Sensitizing staff and building their skills on how to recognize and respond to GBV is crucial. Ensuring that services follow human rights-based and gender specific approaches, and are guided at all times by the preferences, rights and dignity of the victim, is important.

Providing adequate infrastructure to ensure the patient’s privacy, safety and confidentiality is also essential. This can be done by providing a private room for consultations, requiring that consultations are held without presence of a partner, putting in place a system for keeping records confidential or giving instructions to staff on explaining legal limits of confidentiality, if any.

Not only are health workers the ones to fix a fracture or heal a burn injury, they can also play the role of advocate by speaking up against injustice in the course of providing routine care.

Health professionals can also assist victims by making them aware of the counselling and legal services available, which is often a part of the recovery process. Gaining the trust of victims is important in this scenario. Community health care workers and midwives, who are often the most trusted members of societies, can use their power to reach women and vulnerable groups to encourage them to break their silence, and to make informed decisions about their bodies and lives.

The role of health professionals goes beyond simply treating and healing a survivor of gender bases violence – we can empower them, too.