This blog is published on International Woman’s day and it was previously published on my friend Anita Boniface’s website – Women Matter.. Breaking the Silence…
Anita is a strong woman who’s been through a lot. Her blog has been speaking on women’s matters and now she is moving into mainstream journalism , speaking out on Environmental, Social and Governance.
Like me Anita has been helped by Phil Loney- who you may know as formerly being CEO of Royal London. Among the many good things Phil is doing with his life is his work with Tear Fund. This blog describes how TearFund is helping women speak out.
Thanks to Anita and Phil and to the author Sabine Nkusi,
Sexual gender based violence is a sensitive subject that leaves victims in fear. Sabine Nkusi writes on how Tearfund is helping women speak out.
Mariama* from Sierra Leone had never been part of such a group. She did not fully understand how people could talk about such private matters, without fear of being stigmatised.
The support and comfort received from other women, she had never experienced that. She could not remember the last time she had spoken so freely about her experiences. In fact, she had never disclosed her ordeal to anyone. Few friends were aware of the harmful practice she had gone through as a young girl, in the name of tradition, but they were not aware of the other thing.
The thing that made her ashamed of herself. Her husband did not know. She could not tell him. She feared he would reject her. In her community, a woman like her was “damaged goods”. She could never be seen as a good wife, a good mother or just a good woman. She had kept silent. Silent for over 25 years, but the pain was there, constant and so were the scars.
Some were visible, a physical reminder of the harmful practice of female genital mutilation or cutting (FGM/C) she went through at 10 years old. Others, more emotional and psychological were unseen, but nevertheless present, and impacting her life, daily.
You see, Mariama had been raped, and multiple times. She had lived with the shame and guilt associated with those experiences. At least, until she started taking part in a peer support group for survivors of sexual violence run by her church and Tearfund.
What is sexual and gender-based violence?
Globally, one in every three women and girls will experience physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime.
SGBV (sexual and gender-based violence) refers to a wide range of acts that violate people’s human rights, including sexual assault and harassment, domestic violence, rape, female genital mutilation or cutting, and forced marriages. It includes any abusive act, attempted act or threat of a sexual, physical, emotional or economic nature, directed at a person because of their gender identity. This usually involves the use of coercion, power and authority or force. These acts are committed without consent/against the will of the individual, and will have or likely to have harmful consequences.
Why does it happen and what does it mean for women and girls?
Violence against women and girls happens in every sphere of society, and takes on various forms.
Sexual and gender-based violence has its roots in gender inequality. It is underpinned and enabled by unequal power relations between genders and the low value accorded to women and girls. It deprives women and girls of a life of dignity.
Although men and boys face sexual and gender-based violence, women and girls are disproportionately affected by it.
How does Tearfund help prevent SGBV and help heal the communities SGBV affects?
At the heart of Tearfund work, is listening to survivors’ experiences, so that their needs become our priorities. To this effect, we have developed an approach called “Journey to Healing”.
Based on a peer support group format, each woman is able to share her experiences, often very painful, in a safe space, with other women who faced the same ordeal. Through the collective sharing of painful memories, they are able to support one another and heal together.
For the majority of women, this process is often the first time they would have broken the silence around their SGBV experience. This was the case for Mariama.
“I have suffered so much in my life, but never told anyone. I never knew I could find a place of safety. I am not judged here, but supported. I feel joy and belonging. Because of my support group, my pain is gone. I am no longer ashamed. I am free.”
Mariama is not the only one whose life has been transformed. This process has enabled the formation of a collective movement that saw many survivors speak out on issues of SGBV, and courageously leading change in their own lives, homes, relationships and communities.
What is the role of faith in ending sexual and gender-based violence?
Faith plays an important part in people’s lives and shapes views and experiences of the world. Harmful social norms, often influenced and justified by religious beliefs, in relation to gender inequality, are key root causes of violence. In order to prevent and address these harmful social norms, Tearfund works with men, women in faith communities and faith leaders through the “Transforming Masculinities” approach.
Community dialogues and discussions are conducted with faith leaders, men and women to reflect on cultural norms, theology and beliefs that promote harmful gender norms and concepts of masculinities that perpetuate gender inequality.
Scriptural perspectives on SGBV, such as the rape of Tamar in the bible and the role of men in her tragic story are explored. 28 year old Sabo Range said:
“Before community dialogues, I never knew that rape existed in marriage. I used to go to my wife anytime I felt like having sex, whether she was in the mood or not. As the man of the house, my decision stands whenever I need or want to make love with my wife…. I now have a better understanding of the importance seeking consent from my wife before having sex with her, we need to agree”
Concepts of power are discussed. Who holds the power: in the home, in the community and society at large? Who gets listened to? Faith leaders and community members are encouraged to speak to their spouses and families about aspects of their behaviour that need changing. Pastor Enoch said: “I was saddened that my wife didn’t feel she could talk to me,” he admits.
“She said I do not value her opinion and that I make all the decisions at home. Everything from how we spend money, to what she should wear — she said I had all the power.”
Our work on the ground with faith leaders and communities has demonstrated that faith can be a powerful tool for responding to and preventing SGBV. Faith leaders have a key role to play in influencing for change and promoting scriptural interpretation that prioritises flourishing for both men and women, boys and girls.
Mariama, Sabo and Pastor Enoch are among the many men and women whose lives have been transformed, as they courageously took the journey to personal transformation that brought about lasting change in their lives.
*Name has been changed to protect identity
Sabine Nkusi is Programme Coordinator at the Gender and Protection Unit with the charity Tearfund.
To find out more about Tearfund, visit www.tearfund.org
Learn more about Sexual and Gender Based Violence here.