Just being women puts them at risk


December 30, 2011

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    Our programs in Ethiopia address harmful traditional practices such as female genital mutilation. Photo: Berehanu Eshete/Mercy Corps Photo: ethiopia_women_gbv_1.jpg
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    Discussions include community members, traditional institution leaders, and local government leaders — both men and women. Photo: Berehanu Eshete/Mercy Corps Photo: ethiopia_gbv2.jpg
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    Phil Ottum/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Kevin McNulty, a gender-based violence advisor for Mercy Corps, recently visited our programs in the Horn of Africa. "Behavior changes happen over the long-term – sometimes it takes generations. So we want to start changing mindsets right now." Photo: Phil Ottum/Mercy Corps

In many places around the world, women have less visibility, power and status in their communities than do men — an imbalance that makes women more vulnerable to threats, coercion and abuse. Violence against women can be sexual, physical, emotional or economic. Because it arises from power differences based on gender, it's called gender-based violence, or GBV. (Men and boys can be victims of GBV too, but the vast majority of victims are women and girls.)

The risk of GBV increases during conflicts, emergencies and natural disasters — the very environments in which Mercy Corps works — because these crises cause social structures to break down, making women even more vulnerable. Mercy Corps takes very seriously its responsibility to mitigate the risks of GBV and protect people in the communities we serve.

As part of our agency-wide effort to ensure that all our programs carefully consider issues of power, vulnerability and GBV, we recently sent GBV specialist Kevin McNulty to observe our programs in the Horn of Africa.

Kevin McNulty served in the Peace Corps in Senegal, where he first observed — and was deeply disturbed by — gender-based violence. He holds a master's degree in health science from the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and a bachelor's degree in international politics from Penn State University. McNulty has ten years of experience developing and managing programs that address GBV risks and empower women in Ethiopia, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Uganda.

Please tell us about your recent trip for Mercy Corps.
McNulty: I visited three countries in the Horn of Africa – Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia – where Mercy Corps is doing some kind of GBV work. I looked at what we're doing now and how we can improve and expand our programs going forward.

We'd like to hear about all three countries. Will you start by telling us what you observed in Somalia?
We're working directly with GBV survivors there. Mercy Corps has trained community support groups of male and female volunteers. They are the first responders who connect with survivors and listen to their stories, then refer them to our trained staff person, a female nurse. She offers counseling, referrals to appropriate medical services and help paying medical fees if needed. It's important that the survivor gets treatment as soon as possible, to help prevent HIV and STDs, to care for any injuries, and to discuss her options if she's pregnant.

Do the community support groups do anything beyond the initial interview?
Yes, they help educate community members about GBV. They talk about not stigmatizing women who are victims of violence and help make sure survivors can be reintegrated into their families and communities.

Beyond taking care of individual survivors, what are Mercy Corps' larger goals?
We're trying to ramp up prevention and protection, and to encourage more reporting of GBV incidents.

How about Ethiopia — what are we doing there?
We're addressing GBV in the context of other projects – making sure that when women and girls participate in a project, we take into account any risks to their well-being, and we reduce those risks.

For instance?
We had an urban housing project where families got assistance from a savings and credit organization to help them make their homes more livable. In one nine-family compound, there was no latrine. Going outside at night, the women were at risk. One of the women received a loan to help build a latrine inside the compound for all nine families. Then she collected donations to pay it off. This program brought so many benefits. Everyone is safer. And the woman who took out the loan gained new skills and confidence. She got her neighbors to see the benefit and help pay off the loan. She became a leader.

What's the lesson for other projects?
When we design projects, we want to look at all the resources: who controls them, how they're distributed, who gains. And we want to make sure women are part of the discussion and decision-making from the outset.

And what's going on in Kenya?
We're beginning to train community support groups in active listening and how to get survivors to explain their needs. We're finding out what resources are available locally, so that survivors can get timely support when they need STD treatment and pregnancy counseling.

What surprised you on this trip?
One of the issues we're working on is female genital mutilation (FGM). This is a traditional practice in many parts of Africa, and it's very dangerous for the young girls who are subjected to it. Through our community groups, we're spreading the word about the risks. When we did our survey, we were surprised to find which ones are NOT putting their daughters through FGM: the families of sheiks and imams. Why? Because, they say, the Koran doesn't permit it. So here the religious leaders are the progressive ones, and we can hold them up as role models. At the same time, we are encouraging people to keep having the coming-of-age ceremonies where FGM used to occur. There's nothing wrong with a happy ceremony! The idea is to keep what's positive and eliminate what's negative.

What are the biggest misperceptions about GBV?
The biggest one I come across is that gender-based violence only happens “over there” and not right here. It's a terrible thing, whether it happens here in the US or in Africa or anywhere.

What's the most challenging thing about this work?
It's hard to know how many people have suffered GBV, because of under-reporting. So when there's an increase, we don't know if that's because of more people speaking up, or more incidents.

So is it hard to feel we're making progress?
We may not have a baseline to report against. But just as each raindrop doesn't know what difference it will make, when it enters the lake the water level rises. We do have an impact, and we'll just keep working. Behavior changes happen over the long-term – sometimes it takes generations. So we want to start changing mindsets right now.

We are also working to change ideas about women's role in the community. We tell people: Say you have a camel, and two of its legs are tied. It can move, but not very well, and it's not very productive. It's not very happy, either! If you untie it, the animal can move forward more easily, and that benefits everyone. Women are half the community, just like those two legs on the camel. So why would you halve the productivity of the community?