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25 November Nov 2019 1431 25 November 2019

Fighting violence against women around the world

AVSI's commitment in preventing gender-based violence, assisting victims and educating communities

© Marco Palombi

Contribution of Dania Tondini and Annalisa Costanzo - AVSI Foundation - on Corriere della Sera

On November 25, for the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, we gladly publish this contribution from AVSI.

In almost 50 years of AVSI's history, the main foundation of any activity has been the centrality of the person. Identifying people's real needs and recognising their uniqueness is a challenge that arises in any development project. This is also crucial when it comes to fighting violence against women around the world.

The 2030 Agenda gives great importance to this issue by dedicating one of the Sustainable Development Goals, SDG5: "Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls".

In AVSI’s experience, it is not possible to prevent, assist or educate except within the construction of a new and egalitarian relationship between people who are aware of their uniqueness and their positive value. AVSI has learned, through multiple experiences that the source of every process of change, even on such a sensitive issue as that of gender-based violence, cannot disregard one’s own self and dignity as something valuable that no violence can remove. Recognizing one's own dignity and potential is fundamental to build lasting personal and family relationships, based on mutual respect and trust between men and women and between people from all ages, generations and genders.

A European Union-funded project is under way in Burundi to tackle violence against women. The main activities are aimed at improving prevention, awareness and assistance to victims. In addition to working directly with women that have been victims of violence, more than eighty schools were involved in the creation of "Club Stop GBV" (Gender-Based Violence), that work to raise awareness through videos and comics. The involvement of various actors is the first and most fundamental point, both to ensure the widest dissemination of information on the subject, and to assist victims with a holistic approach. From the provision of food and lodging, to psychosocial care and visits to the medical centers, to legal assistance and the dissemination of information on the new Burundian law against gender-based violence; this approach does not merely correct behaviour through the imposition of rules and controls, but pushes towards a change of mentality. The road towards the eradication of gender-based violence is harder than to simply "convince" men to behave differently. To eradicate any form of violence or abuse it is necessary to propose a new mentality that will allow people to see and respect every individual regardless of gender, age, class and habits.

A program funded by the European Union against female genital mutilation (FGM) is under way in Ivory Coast, aiming to reach 500,000 people by the end of 2020. The initiative aims to inform and raise awareness on the issue of genital mutilation, to make people understand the consequences of this practice, particularly on maternal and child’s health. The important component of the project is the role of civil society in the psychological, legal, medical and economic follow-up of 500 women and girls who have undergone this practice.

The action first takes into account the victims: the identified women are accompanied through various activities so that they can become aware of the seriousness of what they have suffered, learn to live with their wounds and get to actively engage in preventing FGM practices. This specific activity involving women is combined with activities aimed at raising awareness and improving training and communication in order to make a change of the whole community. The goal is to spread clear, accurate and relevant messages in order to improve awareness and generate a reaction among families, community members and the entire population present in the affected areas. Appropriate mechanisms and channels are used for this, including traditional communication channels, village focal points, the use of local languages and dissemination through radio broadcasts and dramatization.

At the heart of this project are civil society organisations that work daily to improve the well-being of victims and strive to contribute to the elimination of this particular form of violence against women. The strengthening of the capabilities of local civil society is a key element of AVSI's approach, which stems from the principle of subsidiarity. In fact, strengthening local actors is a way of contributing to sustainability, to ensure that the initiatives and commitments made under the project do not fade away with the end of international funding but that, on the contrary, the network of strengthened local organisations within the project continues to operate and spread the message against this phenomenon.

Also on the topic of fighting mutilation and forced early marriages, an interesting experience is underway in Kenya, together with a local partner. The aim is trying to keep girls in school by organizing their 'transition into adulthood’ through a workshop of two days (similar to what happens in the actual rite) focused on the value of education, personal hygiene and self-awareness. At the same time, men and women in the community are made aware of the value of girls and the importance of protecting them.

A decisive aspect in economic development projects is the involvement of husbands, in order to legitimize women to manage the work and, at the same time, not to cause frustration in men, in a kind of 'power sharing' so that it is not only the woman that earns money. Savings groups and training courses for small businesses have brought unexpected results in reducing domestic violence, as well as the economic dependence on the husband, while increasing self-esteem and confidence in women.

This means that we have to start from the reality of these problems, have a deep knowledge of the context and the people, and take into account the local culture.

We have seen many examples of women who have made a change, that are aware and want to take a step forward for themselves and their children in Uganda, as part of the SCORE project funded by the American agency USAID. Here the prevention of abuse takes place through the establishment of a village savings and credit group, where 80% of the members are women (for a total of 37,000 people). When a family is in difficult situations, it is easier to lock themselves into "isolation": difficulties can undermine trust within family members and weaken the sense of belonging within the community. Such circumstances contribute to deteriorating the value attributed to women to the point of leaving room for violence and abuse.

In this project, AVSI aimed to develop relationships within communities, fostering relationships with local institutions to ensure sustainable responses to the needs of vulnerable children and their families. The women were the protagonists of this successful project thanks to the method of personalized accompaniment that is adapted to the person in order to guide them to their complete autonomy. In this case, strengthening the economy was the means used in combating GBV: women at the end of the project were confident in making decisions for themselves and the family to the point of wanting to provide for themselves to ensure, for example, access to education for their children. Promoting a culture in which women have a role and the possibility of being proactive in domestic life is a key step in addressing the roots of the problem.

In contexts of increased vulnerability, extreme poverty or migration, the risks of violence are even higher. For example, in the Democratic Republic of Congo the uncertainty and fragility of personal and family life often leads to situations of violence.

In South Sudan there is a very strong relationship between GBV and conflict. In case of rape, the rapist is obliged to marry the girl and pay for her dowry in livestock, often stolen from neighboring clans. During the plundering, more rapes and murders can occur, which will then be avenged and "rearranged" by the same mechanism, causing conflicts between clans that last for decades. For several years, we have been engaged in implementing projects of sensibilization, training courses for girls, empowerment of local authorities and activities for women's inclusion.

In Lebanon we are active in refugee camps for the prevention of violence and early marriages. In Haiti, we work to strengthen women's associations, for the provision of medical services (HIV prevention, post-violence care, information on sexual and reproductive health) and income-generating activities. In particular, we work with girls involved in armed gangs. For domestic 'slave' girls, a widespread phenomenon where abuse of all forms is often added to labour exploitation, we try to raise awareness among local families to prevent abandonment and among host families to promote schooling.

Girls' education is a great form of violence prevention. Girls that have been schooled delay the age of marriage, they become more autonomous economically and are more aware, they nurture and educate their children, with an extraordinary multiplier effect. Nevertheless, even this is not obvious: it is necessary to raise awareness among families and communities, to adapt spaces and to pay attention to details (for example by providing sanitary pads so that girls are not ashamed to go to school during their menstrual cycle).

A small example was given recently in Uganda. The manager of the distance support project, which we have been carrying out in that country for years, noticed that some girls, who came from the same area and went to the same school, had stopped attending it. He went to meet them to understand why and found out that on the way from home they were at risk of being harassed. He then proposed to the girls to take a martial arts course to teach them maybe not to defend themselves but at least to wriggle out. To the surprise of all the girls, excited to have discovered new possibilities in them, they invited other friends and the group expanded considerably. Over time, they have also changed their attitude: especially girls, who were previously more timid, have gained more self-confidence and therefore the courage to express themselves concerning other problems and needs. A simple activity allowed them to find a new self-awareness, to the point that it was possible to start working with them even on very sensitive issues such as those related to personal hygiene and health.

In conclusion, it is always necessary to start from the situation, the local culture, the daily life, identifying the best ways in every specific situation. Trying to enhance the existing positive points and to mobilize as many actors as possible in this commitment, integrating different actions involving all the subjects of a community, both women and men, civil society aggregations, institutions, businesses and educational centers. Even the best laws, in order to be effective, must be accompanied by a change of mindset, by the direct and personal experience of the discovery of one’s self, one's own value and the value of other people.

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