South Africa, Let’s Stay Positive

How do we stay positive in a country experiencing a continuous increase in gender-based violence?

In South Africa, it has been reported that femicide is on the rise, with South African Police data reporting that the murder rate for women increased drastically by 7.7% between 2015 and 2016/17. New cases are reported on a daily basis and more women are silently suffering in abusive relationships than ever before. It’s all over the news, happening in our circles to those we love and destroying lives of too many South African women.

In light of the newly released statistics on domestic violence in South Africa, I’ve found myself struggling more than ever to stay positive and hopeful for the future of our country and future generations.

Fighting for a cause should be a crucial part of all of our lives, even with the reality it shoves upon us. Living in a country where human rights have evolved and made such historic progress, but where barriers are still entrenched and need to be navigated around, it feels as though progress is now on an elongated plateau.

So how exactly can we stay positive in light of all of this?

As difficult as it can be, getting involved is the answer. Being confronted by the brutality and violence can fire up a warrior inside us and spur on the fight. It can urge us to speak up and confront the distressful situation in the country head on. We need to acknowledge the reality and tackle it whole-heartedly. We need to converse, share opinions, listen to each other and form a community.

It is a fight that each and every one of us must take part in. It is our duty to stand up for women by raising awareness to the injustice in our society.

This is a call on South Africans to be brave, stand up, and speak out against gender based violence.

Without disregarding the reality of the situation, we also need to focus on the positive milestones women have achieved and are currently achieving around the world – and especially in our own country. Without the belief that things are going to get better – they won’t.

In South Africa we celebrate August as Women’s Month. This year, it was welcomed by thousands of gender equality activists, members of the LGBTQI+ community and women across the country who took to the streets on August 1st in a march to raise awareness against gender-based violence.

#TheTotalShutDown echoed throughout the whole month. Whether it was online, within communities or chatter on the streets – we had people talking. “My body, not your crime scene” was chanted throughout the country. Women were urged to join nationwide marches and those who weren’t able to were asked to avoid work places and take a moment of silence for all the victims of femicide.

Flickering fires of passion were ignited within women no matter their cultural, racial, political or social differences for one common goal – justice for fellow sisters. It was mesmerising watching women come together and embrace their differences while connecting with each other. Women found themselves in each other.

South African women have fought this brutal reality so passionately and for so long, we cannot let it win. No matter how difficult, we have to believe that we can make a difference and mend this broken country.

We are warriors and will be remembered in history as the ones who carried the fight.

To End Violence, We Must Build #CitiesforWomen

In the fight to end violence against women and girls, no real progress can be made without considering the role of the urban environment. Dark streets, unprotected public toilets, parking lots and mass transit are breeding grounds for violence. A placard we saw at a protest against femicide in Latin America a few years ago sums it up: “Walking home, I want to feel free, not brave.”

Since last fall, women in the United States have been speaking up as never before on the subject of violence, harassment, and abuse – at home, at work, in daily life. If #TimesUp for gender-based, on-the-job abuse, #TimesUp too for cities that fail to consider the daily dangers faced by half of their community.

A Global Problem
  • 2014 Reuters survey of 16 major cities worldwide found that women in Latin American cities suffered the highest rates of harassment, with about 6 in 10 women experiencing physical harassment on public transport. Additionally, 64% of women in Mexico City said they’d been groped or physically harassed on public transport.
  • In a 2009 UN Women survey in Delhi, 95% of women said their mobility was limited by fear of harassment in public places.
  • In a Kenyan survey from Women’s Empowerment Link, more than half of the 381 women interviewed in 2017 said they’d experienced gender-based violence while using public transport.
  • According to the World Bank-led partnership, Sustainable Mobility For All, 53% of women in developed countries feel “unsafe” or “very unsafe” waiting on a railway platform after dark.

By 2030, more than 60% of the world’s population will live in urban areas. With women representing more than half the world’s population, cities need to improve their urban infrastructure to discourage harassment and abuse.

A great deal of danger could be eliminated with more inclusive city planning and the creation of infrastructure sensitive to the needs of women and girls – better street lighting and broader streets, fewer dead-end alleys, safer public toilets. Safer cities enable every individual to move through their day without fear and with unfettered access to social, economic, political, cultural, and educational opportunities.

Photo Credit: Sydney Rubin

We must all do whatever it takes to create cities where women and girls can lead healthy, prosperous, and fulfilling lives, in dignity and peace. It will take cooperation and commitment from government at every level, multi-lateral institutions of all kinds, and non-governmental groups such as WomenStrong International.

How WomenStrong Helps

Members of the WomenStrong Consortium are supporting women and girls in a number of effective ways as they seek to build lives free from violence.

  • With our partner DHAN Foundation in Madurai, India – a city with a population of 1.5 million – we have established a Micro-Justice Clinic to teach women their rights, arm them with the resources they need to fight injustice and stand up for themselves. These women, who also are members of micro-finance self-help groups, discover that economic empowerment gives them confidence and the ability to press local officials to address some of the root causes of gender-based violence, including unsafe infrastructure.
  • Women’s Health to Wealth (WHW) in Kumasi, Ghana – population well over 2 million – works with women who rent stalls in the Bantama Market and who had been pressing local officials for years to install lighting and pave market alleyways so they could safely transport their wares at dawn and dusk. With WomenStrong’s support, women working with WHW struck a bargain with a local official, agreeing to clean the market in exchange for the government paving and lighting the market. The paving was completed, but the lighting was not, so WHW continue to press the market manager. Their concerns have spurred construction of a new, safe, enclosed market structure where plenty of lighting is promised.
  • In the Manyatta slums of Kisumu, Kenya, Alice Visionary Foundation Project (AVFP) has run a multi-year program on Positive Discipline in schools to help create environments where girls can learn, prosper and grow. Schools should be places of safety for young girls but are often places of harassment, verbal and physical abuse, and rape, by male students and even teachers. AVFP works with school administrators, teachers, parents, public officials and communities to help keep girls in school and flourishing in the face of the massive challenges of poverty.
  • WomenStrong Member H.O.P.E. in Borgne, Haiti – located in a commune with a population of under 100,000 – supports the work of local women who have formed a group to confront domestic violence, helping victims and filling the gap left by a lack of law enforcement. H.O.P.E. also runs clubs for adolescent girls, similar to those at the other WomenStrong sites, teaching girls their rights, building confidence, and providing safe spaces where girls can build friendships, gain mentors, and create a network of support.

Women and girls at all our sites demonstrate every day that they have the determination, smarts and willingness to stand up for their right to be free from violence. It is now up to the rest of us to provide the support they deserve and need by building #CitiesforWomen.

We Can End Gender-Based Violence Through Education

For over 25 years, the 16 Days of Activism campaign has pursued its mission to prevent and end gender-based violence (GBV) in all forms, and demand gender equality across the world. This year, Girl Up Initiative Uganda joins the rest of the world by advocating to put an end to gender-based violence in our schools, homes, and communities.

In Uganda today, over half (56%) of young women and girls – aged 15-24 years – have experienced gender-based violence in their lifetime. GBV is a result of unequal balance of gendered power and can manifest in physical, sexual, emotional and economic violence. It is the most common type of violence that women and girls experience worldwide, and it can have a devastating impact on their mental and physical well-being.

GBV is a widespread challenge facing the health and well-being of adolescent girls in Uganda. It affects girls’ ability to focus and excel in school. In addition, there are limited, if any, safe places in Kampala for victimized girls to go, so the safety and security of girls experiencing GBV cannot be guaranteed. Our team recently counselled and supported two girls, Charity and Judith (pseudonyms). 

Charity and Judith are two adolescent girls living with their uncle in Kampala. He started sexually assaulting them on a daily basis. The girls did not talk to anyone about what was going on because their aunt told them that this was a way to repay him for his kindness. During one of our engagements with the girls, Charity explained the situation to her teacher. She told her that when her aunt was previously confronted by another one of her teachers, her aunt fled to another residential area. The girls are now left to stay alone with their uncle.

Sexual abuse cases like these are extremely difficult to solve. Given that Uganda has signed and ratified international conventions protecting women and children from violence – the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) – the girls’ uncle could be charged in court with child defilement. However, the girls’ safety is at risk if they report because they will likely stay with him during the court proceedings. Even if he were to be convicted of a crime, they will have no place to live if their only relative is gone.  

We are advocating for safe homes for survivors of violence to be established at every regional police station. Girl Up Initiative Uganda is also working closely with the Child Protection Unit of the local police to find solutions to cases of violence experienced by our girls. In the coming years, if nothing changes at the national level, we aim to open a Girl Up Uganda Center to serve as a temporary shelter for girls. In the meantime, we will continue to teach our girls about their rights as enshrined in national and international laws, and how they can be peer educators in spreading their knowledge to their friends and family members.  

Participating in advocacy campaigns such as the 16 Days of Activism Against GBV is another key avenue for spreading our messages, especially to girls outside the formal education system, so that all can fully exercise their potential and contribute to social change.

This year, we are planning the following activities for the 16 Days Campaign:

  • A girl-led advocacy march through the community with placard information; to engage community members (especially men) in conversations about supporting girls and their right to an education, while putting an end to gender-based violence.
  • A celebration of the 240 girls that are graduating from our 2017 Adolescent Girls Program.
  • On November 30th from 5pm-6pm (EAT), Girl Up Initiative Uganda will be hosting a Twitter Chat. Join us and share your views on how best we can reduce gender-based violence in education!

The 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence provides a platform to speak to key stakeholders about policy changes we would like to for gender-based violence, sexual and reproductive health, and girls’ right to an education. During this campaign, Girl Up Initiative Uganda calls on the government and other key stakeholders to:

  • Promote girls’ education by providing girl-friendly school environments 
  • Improve the availability of and access to youth-friendly sexual and reproductive health services for girls and women
  • Establish capacity-building trainings for local police and Child Protection Units to build their skills on how to address issues of GBV

Together, we can end gender-based violence in education and make schools safer and more secure for adolescent girls!

Shattering the Silence on Violence Against Women

I had the honor of being part of the Digital Media Lounge during the Social Good Summit 2017. The day-long event touched on several topics in relation to the Sustainable Development Goals, from universal healthcare to violent extremism to climate change.

The panel that struck me the most was Shattering the Silence: Gender-Based Violence Solutions with ElsaMarie D’Silva and Ilwad Elman. ElsaMarie is the Founder & CEO of Red Dot Foundation, also known as Safecity  a platform that crowdsources personal experiences of sexual violence and abuse in public spaces. Since its launch in December of 2012, it has become the largest crowd map on the issue in India, Kenya, Cameroon and Nepal. Women can use it to report attacks and instances of sexual harassment anonymously and mark the spot where they happened on a map. Ilwad is the Director of Programs & Development at the Elman Peace & Human Rights Center. Through the center, she co-founded the first rape crisis center for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence in Somalia.

The panel was moderated by Daniela Ligiero, the Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer of Together for Girls, a public-private partnership dedicated to ending violence against children, with a focus on sexual violence against girls. The global partnership includes five UN agencies, many private sector organizations, and the governments of the United States and Canada, along with more than 20 other governments in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. All of these partners work together to generate comprehensive data and solutions to this human rights issue.

The panel focused on how silence is one of the biggest contributors to gender-based violence. According to Daniela, approximately one third of women and girls experience sexual violence and less than 50% of them tell someone about it. Furthermore, less than 2% of the victims get services. Ilwad’s words resonate:

“Silence on the issue is criminal…This is the most endemic situation in the world today”.

She told the audience that in Somalia, women are being jailed for talking about rape. Women are being silenced on the issue by their own governments and activists are being targeted for fighting for women’s rights. This is why ElsaMarie’s Safecity app is so important; it provides a safe space for victims to report their experiences and gives them the courage to speak up. Part of the solution is to stop being silent:

“If we don’t acknowledge it, it never happened. Don’t pretend it doesn’t happen. Make it an issue that it’s not taboo”.

We must report and document these stories so the world can see it’s a real global epidemic and we can use the information to make a change in our communities.   

Despite the darkness of the panel’s topic, it ended on a positive note. The panelists expressed their hope for the future, reassuring the audience that change is possible and we can stop violence against women and girls.

These amazing women are already doing their part by promoting advocacy and speaking up for themselves and others. They are an example of how women can lift each other up and stand up for each other in the face of adversity.

There’s a Chinese proverb I learned during this panel that says: “When sleeping women wake, mountains move”. Let’s wake up, speak up, and move some mountains.