First class travel and priority tags. PA Images/Steve Parsons. All rights reserved.
When Tendai* started Humura, an organisation fighting violence against women, she had passion but no financial resources, no staff, no office, no computer. As a young, first-year teacher, she had started a discussion group with students on issues of sex and sexuality and in the process identified many cases of sexual violence. She was determined to take action: other women should not suffer the way she did when, at the age of 16, she was raped by a close relative and had no one to tell.
She worked day and night, weekends and holidays to organise girls to expose and confront such violence. She made allies and resigned from her teaching job to start Humura. They had no formal systems, structures, plans, budgets or cars. They were a team, bound by trust and a shared vision. They built a critical mass of grassroots, community and institutional supporters. They even invaded homes and rescued young women and girls married off as minors without their consent.
A skilled orator, Tendai was in the limelight. She was advised to register as an NGO and money poured in from all kinds of funders. Huge cars were bought, consultants were hired, volunteers were dismissed, offices were built and soon there was an empire. Tendai acquired a new title: ‘Executive Director.’ She moved from her humble house to a posh suburb of electric fences and guard dogs. She began demanding business class tickets.
People danced to keep their jobs and chiefs in rural areas sang Tendai's praises in the hope of getting crumbs from her table. Donors paraded her from one country to the next showing off their ‘best practice.’ She shared platforms with the high and mighty. Any conference on violence against women was incomplete without her. But all was not well. Control, dominance and exclusion had taken over and the organisation's staff felt disempowered. Humura was losing its humanity.
People danced to keep their jobs... control, dominance and exclusion had taken over...
It was split into pieces: people, relationships, different aspects of the work. The board was chaired a patriarchal bishop. Staff whispered instead of talking; they hardly listened to or looked directly at each other, or the ‘clients’ who came to report violence. Praising the Director won you salary increases and other perks. A small group surrounded Tendai armed with malice, gossip, lies and desire for money, power and promotion.
Most lost confidence and security. Whistleblowers became outcasts. The organisation became a static entity contradicting the very values it stood for. No one knew how to move forward and eventually they let go and the once thriving Humura collapsed completely.
This is the true – but anonymised – story of the premature death of one women's organisation. But this group's experience is not unique and the questions it poses challenge us all: What kind of culture is needed inside organisations working to end gender-based violence?
Rituals and courage
Groups fighting violence against women must be mindful and watchful of drivers of oppression and violence within their own organisations too. All consultants, volunteers and even funders should be oriented in the organisation's unambiguous core values, stated clearly and followed with courage.
Rituals are important. Organisations should routinely reflect: are the group's stated values actually guiding its work? Power must be checked at all times and boring and draining routine work must be tackled too. The organisation's fire must be constantly tended to so that everyone remains engaged and energised and the group can be a nurturing place for all.
Organisations fighting violence against women must never become bureaucratic or doctrinaire. They should commit time and other resources to understanding themselves and how they see and act in the world. A strong governance board, instead of ‘yes’ people who sign blank cheques, is essential. Critical questions must be asked, and often.
Groups fighting gender-based violence must also feed their own souls, so that they have something to share with others.
Do systems and structures allow for individual staff and activists to share their own stories? Can individuals who have experienced violence share this in a trustful and supportive environment? Can one state her position even if it contradicts that of her superiors? Are people silent for fear of offending each other? Do they avoid putting difficult issues on the table in the process?
Is there room to discuss power dynamics related to age, sexual orientation, patriarchy, or location? What are the undiscussable issues? Is there room for co-creation, for harvesting each person’s talents and skills and ensuring their voices are heard and respected? Are team members encouraged to set milestones and personal development goals? How do they develop their skills?
Groups fighting gender-based violence must also feed their own souls, so that they have something to share with others. Organisations should create and institutionalise practices that support well-being and inclusiveness by planning and budgeting for them. This is crucial for our work today – and our ability to withstand withering and rusting tomorrow.
* Names have been changed to provide anonymity.