A Conversation with Women’s Protection and Empowerment Field Staff
Globally, one in three women have experienced physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. In times of conflict or disaster, however, violence against women and girls is even further exacerbated as families are separated and displaced, community support systems and services are disrupted, and law and order breaks down. Despite the fact that women and girls are uniquely impacted by conflict and crisis, their voices are rarely heard.
In honor of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence (GBV) campaign, we will shed light on this issue through a series of conversations with local women’s protection and empowerment experts who are working for the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in some of the most challenging humanitarian contexts. Through their participation in exchange visits in Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp, as well as regional workshops and trainings, they’ve created a sisterhood of support to learn from each other and improve programming in their respective countries. These gatherings have provided a unique opportunity for staff in the Horn and East Africa to interact and share experiences with different aspects of GBV prevention and response, leading to enhanced cross-border learning, capacity-building, and leadership development.
Part 1 of this three-part conversation series focuses on lessons learned in GBV prevention efforts, with expert contributions from national female staff Annet (South Sudan), Harriet (Kenya), Mercy (Kenya), Muna (Somalia), and Pamela (South Sudan). Responses have been edited for clarity and length.
When we think about violence against women and girls in humanitarian settings, we often think about how critical response services are for survivors, especially medical care, psychosocial support, and case management. Why is it important for humanitarian actors to also prioritize prevention programming?
Muna: GBV prevention and response in emergencies is crucial because it is a lifesaving intervention we need to have to protect survivors from the harmful consequences of GBV.
Harriet: We realize that there are many instances where the community is not even aware that we have GBV or what GBV is in the first place. So through prevention, you bring this to their attention — what is GBV and why is it wrong to engage in this and how best can we work with the community in preventing GBV.
Mercy: Survivors of GBV come from the community so it is important for us to have prevention programs that involve communities more deeply so that they can come with homegrown solutions for the GBV problems they face.Staff from 16 IRC country programs celebrating the culmination of a training workshop, Photo: J.Kossen/IRCWomen’s empowerment programming has been important in GBV prevention. What are the opportunities you have seen in programming targeted to women’s social and economic empowerment and the impacts of these programs?
Pamela: The EA$E program, which is the Economic and Social Empowermentprogram, is one of the most exciting programs we have and it has been very positively received by women in the communities in which we work. Through the EA$E program, we focus on three components: Engaging women in 1) Village Savings and Loan Associations (VSLAs), 2) business skills training, and 3) gender discussion groups with husbands to create space for women to be able to make joint decisions within the household. Women are now able to have greater decision making power and contribute towards their family’s needs. They’ve been able to start small businesses so this program is not only impacting women, but impacting families through increased income, more positive relationships, and reduced violence within the family.
Annet: Before enrolling in the EA$E program, women in the Juba Protection of Civilian site would go to the nearby forest to collect firewood so they could earn a living for their family, but this was very risky as the surrounding area outside the site is not safe. But today, as they started a VSLA, these women have been able to take a loan and have expanded their businesses. We’ve also heard from men that they didn’t believe women could handle money, but they’ve now witnessed the success of the women in the program and are going to speak to the other men to encourage the women to participate in the VSLA.
Harriet: In Kenya, we have seen an amazing transformation in the women in our programs. For example, during the exchange visit in Dadaab where we welcomed IRC staff from neighboring countries to learn from our experience in Kenya, community members expressed such appreciation for the program. Over time, we have seen women who came into the program being so hopeless and now being full of life and having all these dreams and thinking, “Now I’m capable, I have the money, I can support my family, and I can also take care of my needs. I am able to run my business, I’m able to engage in other activities, and be with women.” It’s just exciting for them.
Pamela: These programs have actually become transformational for women. It goes beyond economic empowerment, and beyond social empowerment. Women are now being recognized by their communities as leaders in their own right.
“It goes beyond economic empowerment, and beyond social empowerment. Women are now being recognized by their communities as leaders in their own right.” — Pamela
We know the issue of violence against women and girls isn’t just a woman’s issue, but a larger systemic issue. What is the role of men and boys in preventing violence against women and girls?
Mercy: If we look at our settings, most communities are patriarchal and men and boys are the main decision-makers. We must involve them in getting to know what GBV is, and the impact of GBV not only on the women, but also on the men themselves and the wider community. GBV is not just a woman’s issue.
Muna: Engaging men and boys supports our communities to be healthier, for women and girls to be protected, and for men and boys to be accountable for their actions since most of the perpetrators are men and boys.
Pamela: Through our programming, we have been able to shift some attitudes and beliefs in terms of support that men provide to women and girls, but also to stop the blaming and the stigma that is also associated with gender-based violence.
The IRC implements a GBV prevention program known as EMAP, Engaging Men through Accountable Practice. Can you tell us a little bit about how that approach is different or unique from other efforts to engage men and boys, and what impacts you have seen through the program?
Mercy: When you look at many other programs that engage men and boys together with women and girls, you find that the men in those sessions out-speak or out-voice the women so the women’s voices are not heard. Most of the perpetrators are men and most of the survivors are women, yet you find it’s mostly men lecturing women on how not to get raped instead of looking at what they can actually do to stop rape. With EMAP, however, it is a program looking at providing space first for women to raise their voices. It’s about accountability to women’s voices and vision for an equal, violence-free society, with men being accountable — and being allies — to women and girls. What we’ve seen is that with the program, women’s confidence [including their voice and their power] has increased and they are seeking health services more. We are also seeing men starting to speak out and challenging other men. So the women are excited, the men are excited, and we’re excited because we’re seeing change in the two years since we started implementing EMAP.
“Most of the perpetrators are men and most of the survivors are women, yet [in other programs that engage men and boys] you find it’s mostly men lecturing women on how not to get raped instead of looking at what they can actually do to stop rape.” — Mercy
Harriet: It’s all about you changing yourself and how you view issues, how you view violence against women, and how you behave when faced with some of these situations. When we brought staff from other IRC countries to Dadaab for our exchange program, they were able to hear first-hand accounts of the impact of some of our programs. Men who previously offered little to no help to their wives now saying, “I realize this is not the way things should be done and she can’t be here doing everything. Let me help. If she’s cooking, let me hold the baby.” And you realize that both sides, and even the community-at-large, now is actually embracing these roles because it’s not directly saying GBV is bad, but through the actions that you are engaging in, it’s actually transforming the whole issue of violence against women.
As our experts have demonstrated, while conflict increases women’s risk of violence, it can also provide openings and inspiration for challenging old ways of being and exploring new and transformative ideas. Working with men and boys can present opportunities for reflection on negative patterns and behaviors. At the same time, fostering women’s economic and social empowerment can be an important primary prevention intervention and first step toward creating a world where women and girls are valued, equal, and free from violence.
Fostering women’s economic and social empowerment can be an important primary prevention intervention and first step toward creating a world where women and girls are valued, equal, and free from violence.