In New York
for the Commission on the Status of Women, I feel as though the whole world has
sent representatives to Manhattan. Thousands of women and men have gathered for
two weeks to talk about preventing violence against women. I’ve worked in this
field for most of my professional life, but as a complete novice to such UN
meetings, it is both an inspiring and baffling event.
Of course, it’s tremendously exciting that, finally, violence against women is attracting significant attention and political commitment. Even more encouraging is the recognition that violence against women is a global problem and needs a global solution. Hopes are running high, with the zero draft document produced by UN agencies setting out important ambitions. Negotiations are ongoing, and we wait to see what emerges at the end of next week. Being part of, but not party to, these negotiations is a strange experience. Rumours of progress and setbacks swirl around us.
Even for non-delegates, CSW offers an extraordinary opportunity to learn about what is being done to prevent and respond to violence around the world. Over the past two days, for example, I have learned about a programme to support men to prevent violence and another which invests in critical services for women who have been abused; I’ve attended a session about the role of good data to inform policies and to help keep violence 'on the agenda'.
Most of all, though, I’ve spent time with colleagues from Kampala, from the Centre for Domestic Violence Prevention and Raising Voices. These are experienced and inspiring organisations, doing grassroots community level programming on violence and HIV prevention in urban and rural Uganda. With a team of my own colleagues in the Gender Violence and Health Centre at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, I’ve been conducting research with them to assess whether their project (SASA!) can impact on community levels of violence.
As you can see from the video we produced with them, SASA! supports local activists to engage with and respond to violence in their own communities. Especially novel is the analysis they spark on the uses and abuses of power. This entry point for discussions helps engage men as well as women, because everyone can identify with experiences of disempowerment or hurt. Even though the programme chooses not to focus explicitly on gender, conversations move on inevitably to domestic violence, with the recognition that this is driven by power imbalances between women and men. From critical discussion and through SASA!’s many creative activities, communities find their own ways to use their power to promote change.
What has been inspiring for me has been the opportunity to meet people from Haiti and Botswana who are also using SASA! in their own communities and programmes. Clearly, the approach is effective across these very different contexts at engaging communities on the sensitive issue of violence against women.
As Lori Michau, co-director of Raising Voices, highlighted in her summary of programmatic experiences presented at a side event here at CSW, both women and men want to be respected and valued in their relationships. If you provide the tools for couples to do this, both men and women will participate. Improved intimacy, respect and communication are powerful, not only in supporting household economic development, but also by reducing violence, improving a couple’s sex life. In a country such as Uganda, where HIV is a huge problem, these impacts are important, and they point the way to innovative and effective HIV programming in the future.
Walking the bustling corridors of the UN headquarters with my Ugandan colleagues, I realise that I am situated – physically, intellectually, emotionally, politically – in the most direct connection between global policy making and grass root programming. While CSW delegates debate global ambitions on violence against women, I am having concrete discussions about work with communities on the ground in Uganda. This seems like an appropriate set of bearings for a researcher in my field.