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To end violence against women we must tackle patriarchy – and poverty

Violence against women is perpetrated in order to sustain patriarchal power relations. Projects to prevent violence, through economic empowerment, must remember this.

Rachel Jewkes
27 June 2018

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Two young women from the Zindagii Shoista project. Photo: Aziz Sattori.

I first met Farzona a couple of years ago, when she joined a violence prevention project that I have been working on. In her mid-30s at the time, she suffered from severe headaches and anxiety after years of domestic abuse and malnutrition.

Now, Farzona says she has a full dastarkhan’(table of bread) and never struggles to feed her family. She has her own small bakery business and says that her relationship with her husband is now much better as they are both focused on trying to earn money.

Farzona is one of many of women whose family life has radically improved thanks to a new international aid-funded programme called Zindagii Shoista (Tajik for ‘living with dignity’) which takes a holistic approach to preventing domestic violence by addressing family relationships and ways to earn money, involving both men and women of different generations.

Zindagii Shoista was informed by research which revealed the extent of violence and discrimination experienced by many young, married Tajik women at the hands of their husbands and in-laws, often in the context of rural poverty.

This project was funded by UK aid, but led by civil society groups – the global peace-building organisation International Alert, and the human rights NGO CESVI, alongside their partners in Tajikistan FARODIS and Women of the Orient.

The 18-month programme showed that when families work together to address gender imbalances at home, and find new ways to make money, it can have a genuine, positive, long-term impact on household earnings, food security, and violence against women.

Microfinance initiatives, cash transfer programmes and poverty reduction initiatives to end violence against women are not new, and they are not effective in all situations. But family-based projects like this one in Tajikistan achieve surprisingly positive results within relatively short periods of time.

Through the course of the project, the percentage of women reporting intimate partner violence halved and food insecurity for women reduced by two-thirds.

Through the course of the programme, the percentage of women reporting intimate partner violence halved. Food insecurity for women reduced by two-thirds, and the proportion of women earning money increased fourfold. Meanwhile, reports of depression in women nearly halved and depression in men more than halved.

This complex family-based programme tackled two critical factors that lead to violence against women and girls: patriarchal social norms and practices, and poverty.

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Zindagii Shoista beneficiaries at the spring craft market in Dushanbe. Photo: Rachel Jewkes.

Zindagii Shoistawe’s success was thanks to its careful design, strong foundation of research evidence, and coherent theory of how change happens. It was rooted in gender and power theories, adapted for the Tajik situation, which is one of several contexts in which older women join men in oppressing young women.

Most projects to prevent violence against women through their economic empowerment have not worked with men to change their violent behaviour.

Instead, they have focused on strengthening women’s sense of self, providing values clarification and sisterly support. The availability of money as a result of these projects has also reduced conflict in the home – and being able to pay for things has elevated women’s status in the family.

But, while ‘sisters doing it for themselves’ is an appealing idea, it does not address the fundamental reality that violence against women is perpetrated in order to sustain patriarchal power relations.

While ‘sisters doing it for themselves’ is an appealing idea, it does not address the fundamental reality that violence against women is perpetrated in order to sustain patriarchal power relations.

Women’s economic empowerment projects may alter power dynamics family by family, by changing the position of women in the home. But we know little or nothing of the long-term, societal impact of these interventions.

In a recent South African study, cash transfers (direct payments of money) to teenage girls were shown to delay dating and thus their exposure to potential intimate partner violence.

But dating is rarely delayed for very long, and it’s hard to know whether the ‘protective effect’ of such projects will be sustained. Projects like this don’t even try to change ideas about gender equality. If this happens, it’s an often untracked side-effect.

What happens when the cash transfers programme ends? When the microloans company folds or moves to other villages? What happens to the daughters and sons of women in these economic empowerment projects, and whether they experience domestic violence?

Violence against women is pervasive, but it can end. Projects like Zindagii Shoista, that involve both men and women, are more likely to have the greatest long-term benefit. In Rwanda, the Indashyikirwa project works with couples to reduce violence in this historically-traumatised population, and has also had impressive, positive results.

For lasting change, it is best to work with both men and women to prevent violence. We know this from research and experience. But whether this knowledge can be put into practice depends on whether we can garner real political commitment – and whether national governments, and international donors, will come to the table with the substantial investment that is required.

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