In a recent post, APF looked at why violence against women is still so prevalent in all parts of the world. Today, we’re talking to a nonprofit determined to put an end to that violence: IDEX. Short for the International Development Exchange, IDEX has built a network of community-based partners that get at the root of violence through innovative solutions. IDEX’s Director of Program Partnerships Yeshica Weerasekera shared with us the thought process behind their work. The key, she says, is in addressing both the causes and manifestations of violence, and recognizing that after the violence, there must be healing.
APF: Can you sketch an outline of the current state of violence against women in South Asia and elsewhere?
YW: Sure. In South Asia, our focus countries are India and Nepal, but we know violence against women happens everywhere in many forms. There are still some matrilineal societies, but in most cases, women face the same issues across boundaries.
India is the world’s largest democracy with a dynamic and complex society. It also has a very progressive constitution with strong provisions for gender equality. But India came to light recently with some shocking and graphic rape cases. The status of women there in general is really low, and patriarchal practices are endemic.
To further complicate things, overlaid with the gender issue in South Asia is the cast and class issue. When you have endemic poverty and a lack of power, women’s subservient roles are reinforced. The violence can be physical, but it can also be economic, political, or a denial of their rights to equal treatment.
APF: That relates to my next question, actually. Do you think there are some forms of violence that are not receiving enough attention? Things that we should be talking more about?
YW: Violence against women is both a simple and complex issue. I think what usually gets attention are these very graphic manifestations of physical violence — beatings, rapes, dowry deaths, and human trafficking. These issues are the sort that outrages our sense of justice and wellbeing, but there are also other aspects of violence. Psychological violence is one. Denial of rights can be another form.
I also think what doesn’t get discussed enough is the relationship between violence and how we order our society, how it’s linked to misinterpretation of culture, and how our behavior and social norms reinforce the status of women. These things lead to the manifestations of physical violence because perpetrators of violence believe they have the right to do this.
Also, when you think about violence, there’s a spectrum about gender rights. It’s not just women— it affects all those who are seen as differing from the established social order or the binary gender code, even when culturally they may be tolerated. For example, in India, you have a group known as the hijra — they are traditionally men who dress up as women or are transgender men. For survival they often perform, usually at weddings and other celebrations. They are accepted in that way, but it doesn’t stop the brutal violence that’s often perpetrated against them.
APF: Sometimes it can be hard to talk about culture and its relation to social roles because we don’t want to seem like we’re imposing our views onto different people — there’s cultural relativism to think about too. So how do we talk about culture and violence against women without offending other people’s sensibilities, or is that something we should face head on?
YW: Tough question! I think we would defer to our partners who operate in those contexts to answer that. [Laughs.]
I’m not sure I have the definitive answer, but I think you have to approach this with sensitivity and within that specific cultural context. The women’s groups and partners that we work with develop local solutions and approaches that are respectful to and work within their own culture and community. Sometimes you do need to confront it directly, but you also need to work in harmony.
For example, you could take an economic approach to the problem. Most of our partners need to get permission from the elders or the village committees to operate. They’ll work with groups of women to do livelihood trainings, and they’ll also open it up to the men so the men can come and hear what they have to say. They won’t say ‘it’s just women who are allowed’ because that will break down the trust. Remember: these are often the husbands or fathers or brothers of the women. They’re family members, so targeting some of the work they have to do together addresses the tensions that exist.
APF: Very true—after all, at the end of the day, they all have to live together!
YW: There’s a video that explains the work of one of our partners, the Women’s Awareness Center Nepal (WACN). One clip shows how a woman benefitted from being engaged in their savings and loans cooperative. Previously, she couldn’t even access a 500 rupee loan. There were women in her community who were afraid to talk to outsiders. Now, through their activities in the cooperative, these women speak out, they hold office, they become officers of the cooperative. It’s a pretty amazing trajectory.
In another clip, you’ll see one husband say that before he was ashamed; he wasn’t trusting. Now he’s happy to support his wife with her income generating activities and plays a supportive role because he now respects her as an income earner and sees all the good that she has brought into the family and community. You hear these kinds of stories over and over again.
So that is one way to not alienate the other gender. Obviously we really believe in women’s agency, and once you’ve tapped into women’s agency and help build their confidence and trust, they start flying with it. There are other ways of approaching violence against women too, of course. You can do important rights-based work, which can call for demonstrating in the streets, and you can be doing critical policy work. But whatever you do, you’ve got to make it real for the women on the ground. The widespread implementation of policy and access to social, economic and political rights, especially for rural women has been lagging.
APF: How else have you seen people making it real for the women on the ground?
YW: One thing I remember is from the African context, where female genital mutilation has been an endemic practice in parts of West and East Africa. It’s a disturbing practice. Girls can die in the process, or they have terrible, terrible experiences during marriage, sex, and childbirth because of the sewing of the vagina after its cut. But there’s been terrific work done by some local organizations dealing with these cultural practices in thoughtful and creative ways. So, instead of condemning the women who perpetrate these practices, they work with them to modernize them. Instead of cutting the girls, they do a traditional ceremony around it. So you see, it is a sensitive issue that is complex to deal with, but it’s not impossible.
APF: That’s fascinating! Can you talk about what some of IDEX’s current initiatives or the impact you and your partners have helped achieve?
IDEX has three areas of focus: women’s empowerment, economic livelihoods, and care for the environment. When we select our partners, they have to work in at least two of the three areas. Even though some of partners don’t necessarily target violence against women, it comes up for them because all of these aspects are tied together.
More specifically, though, I know that our partner WACN had a big demonstration last year when there were local cases of women being attacked and killed in their communities, tied to dowry issues and internal family violence.
In South Africa, Positive Women’s Network works on providing services and information access for women who are living with HIV/AIDS. Since they’ve been active, the incidences of violence in their own community have gone down. Also on the national level, they do a lot to target policy and to organize around campaigns. There is also an extremely high incidence of violence against women in Guatemala. One of our partners in Guatemala was directly involved in the anti-femicide laws to ensure that there are repercussions for those who target and kill women.
Our partners are very organized in campaigns, but also do a lot of work in the communities. For example, women from our Guatemalan partner, AFEDES, have to deal with the violence manifested even by their own family members against their work. But they try to bring the men in and deal with the pressures that the men deal with. It’s about healing for them — healing the trauma that they’ve suffered for hundreds of years as indigenous people. They understand that even though they focus their work on women, men need a sense of healing as well. It’s long-term work.
APF: What will IDEX do from here?
The struggle within this sphere has been going on for decades, and it’s not going to end overnight. There’s no quick method. What’s really important for us is to support the local solutions that come from the grassroots, developed by our terrific partners. We are 100% behind these amazing solutions because they target the root causes as well as the manifestations. You can have really strong laws that are needed to punish perpetrators, but you also have to be able to implement those laws and raise women’s’ awareness about their rights. You also have to help them gain strength and confidence to organize, be able to take their rights into their own hands, and lead in their communities — not just on their own, but also with other women to build solidarity so they can tackle the issues at the community and social level.
APF: If there’s someone out there who wants to get involved locally or globally, what do you suggest they do? Do you have any recommended resources for them?
YW: There is a lot out there! You can check out our website, look at the work on women’s empowerment, and sign up for our email list to stay in contact about the work of our partners. There’s also an initiative that takes place on Valentine’s Day each year to raise awareness and take action. It’s called One Billion Rising and we are involved in it. There are events taking place in major cities around the world, and there are many excellent organizations doing good work in anti-violence. I’d be happy to be a contact for referrals or if anyone wants to learn more about this.