Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV) and Violence against Women (VAW) will be in the news today, and I hesitated to “join the crowd”. However, it is a topic that was discussed at a lunchtime meeting held in our Zürich office last week, and transformed into a webinar with inputs from Nepal and Tajikistan. It was open to our other offices around the world to log in – and many did so. (Now we have the technology, we should make use of it, after all).
We started with the photograph above, which shows Gulniso, from Tajikistan. She is one of the 11,137 women who, since 2012, has received free legal assistance through the Access to Justice Project which is supported by SDC and implemented by our team in Tajikistan. I met Gulniso last year when visiting one of the legal aid centres; she poured out the story of her life in much detail, but the essence is this. Following divorce, Gulniso was seeking alimony from her husband for her three children. Her marriage to him was arranged when she left school aged 18, and throughout much of their married life he was absent in Russia, as a labour migrant – returning for only brief visits. Gulniso, and the children as one by one their family grew, remained at the family home, presided over by her father-in-law. Then one night her father-in-law attempted to rape her, and when her husband next returned, Gulniso told him. Instead of supporting her, he flew into a violent rage. Gulniso was beaten unconscious, doused with inflammable liquid, and set alight. She awoke in hospital, remaining in intensive care for three months before learning that her husband had divorced her. For the sake of the children, she would have gone back to him. Now she wears a niquab to cover her scars, her scalp having been so badly burned that people recoil in horror when they see it. Yet this too causes her problems, as she is assumed to be a devout Muslim when she applies for government jobs, and she believes that she is rejected on these grounds.
Three points of Gulniso’s story are of particular note. One is that she is a survivor, and deserves to be recognised as such, rather than as a victim to be pitied. Another is that she sought to downplay the violence meted upon her, was even prepared to accept it, and now hides its effects. A third is that the reason for her wearing a niquab is often misconstrued. That is a particularly crucial point for those of us implementing supposedly unrelated development activities. Domestic violence is often considered a private matter, one that is better not discussed. Thus behind a woman’s poor degree of participation or apparent lack of interest or concentration may in fact lie the fear of violence from a partner. In discussing this with colleagues in Bangladesh a few months ago, they acknowledged the issue and said that whenever implementing activities specifically aimed at women, they always first arrange a meeting with the husbands to gain their support for the proposed interventions. That is one simple step that, in this case, can make a big difference. It is a wise one; a study recently published in Gender and Development showed that supporting women’s economic empowerment can increase the rate of domestic violence against women. This needs to be factored into project design, identifying ways to reduce such a risk.
The importance of involving men was stressed by a number of the webinar participants. Examples given included male opinion leaders prepared to take a stance against violence; men at grassroots level who recognise that domestic violence is not a private matter and are prepared to intervene; male officials who are prepared to uphold existing laws. At the crux of this is understanding, and challenging, existing power relations – between men and women, but also between different groups in society (a topic too long for this blog, though a briefing paper by IDS makes interesting reading). Tackling SGBV demands a change in deeply rooted attitudes. Mona Sherpa pointed out that in Nepal – and in many other countries, domestic violence and rape are shrouded in a culture of shame that often blames the woman. Gulya Gaibova referred to a study conducted in Tajikistan 2012, which found that 60% of women between the age of 15 and 49 believe that a man is justified in beating his wife if she displeases him. These are attitudes that are at odds with the human right to a life free of violence. We should respect individual privacy and different cultural values, yes – but as has been said many times, human rights are women’s rights too.