Today is the first day of the United Nations Secretary-General’s campaign to UNiTE by 2030 to End Violence against Women. This is a vital issue for many of the women farmers we work with, and that's why we are standing with them.
There are 16 days of international action from today (25 Nov), running up to world Human Rights Day on 10 December. The campaign was started by the Women’s Global Leadership Institute with the aim of increasing awareness of the violence experienced by women and girls around the world, to galvanise advocacy efforts and share knowledge and effective interventions.
There is so much that is very different about the lives of the women in rural east Africa and, for example, the lives of women in the UK. But I am sure that the stories I hear from women who have been abused are the same those of women in similar situations all around the world.
“The women I meet in villages say: “He said I was no good for anything.” “He is a member of my family: I am so ashamed.” “I know he will beat me if I talk about this.” They fear speaking out about sexual abuse because it affects their chances of ever being married.”
We are joining the UN campaign this year as a new member of the gender network of the International Fund for Agricultural Development, and taking part in the opening conference, alongside other organisations around the world taking action on this important issue.
Why is Send a Cow involved?
You might be wondering how this relates to our work in sustainable agriculture?
Working on gender and social inclusion is one of the three central pillars of Send a Cow’s work – it’s key to our strategy of ensuring sustainable community development.
Seventy percent of the people we work with in our projects in east Africa are women. We deliberately recruit women because they are the poorest of the poor: in the communities where we work most of them have very little access to education and training. Our work not only provides food and nutrition for them and their families – it opens up life opportunities for them.
The widespread inequalities of life for women and girls in rural Africa mean that they are especially vulnerable to physical and emotional abuse. The oppressive behaviours are often so embedded in what is considered normal, everyday life that they are just not recognised. If a man berates his wife for being lazy, or stupid it is not considered to be emotional abuse. If he hits his wife people might say, “It’s because he passionately loves her.”
Women who are entirely dependent on their husbands (or a powerful figure in their family) for financial support are not free to leave an abusive relationship. How will they support themselves, or their children?
Understanding the scale of the problem
East and Southern Africa has high rates of sexual violence against women and girls. In seven of the countries in our region, one in five young women aged 15 to 24 report that they have experienced sexual violence.
When you go into a community the impact of gender-based violence is not obvious until you start talking to women in focal group discussions. You can see some women’s lack of confidence – they appear to feel worthless and are deeply ashamed to talk about their experiences. This is very sensitive work that needs to be handled very carefully.
Often the women and girls affected are absent: they don’t come to village meetings – we need to seek them out to have a woman-to-woman conversation.
The impact of abuse is more devastating on girls’ school performance and it is the major reason for the higher school dropout rate for girls. This is in communities where every teenage girl that we meet will tell us they want to be in school, and they want to graduate from high school and go to university. They aspire to be educated women.
The pandemic has intensified violence against women and girls. We have seen many reports of abuse, including female genital mutilation (FGM), child marriage, sexual harassment and intimate partner violence. Lockdowns have meant restricted access to contraception services: the Kenyan government reported a record number of girls being pregnant when schools reopened and they were sitting their exams.
According to a United Nations Population Fund report on teenage pregnancies in Uganda, during and after Covid-19 lockdown, eastern Uganda (Busoga) had the highest reported cases, with Luuka district alone reporting more than 600 cases. In the Buliisa district of western Uganda between 25-30% of all adolescent girls became pregnant.
We must ask ourselves: “Are these young girls choosing to get pregnant and lose their opportunities to go to school? What has happened here?”
How Send a Cow’s programmes support women
Turning around statistics like these is challenging work – there is resistance. Changes in household dynamics and people's attitudes towards gender roles don’t happen overnight. It takes the full three years of a project to have an impact, but our evaluations show that our approach works.
Our Transformative Household Methodology has proved to be a highly effective tool in revealing the roles and responsibilities of everyone in a home – the tasks they do and also how much control they have over household resources. Everyone’s contributions can be clearly seen, and the inequalities are immediately apparent.
Doing this exercise can have a dramatically “transformative” effect. When husbands see how much work women do, and also that their farm work is generating an income, there can be a real shift in the household power dynamics, which can be built upon in discussions and training sessions.
Being effective in reducing violence against women and girls requires community-based work that really addresses the underlying risk factors for violence, including challenging entrenched ideas of what is normal and acceptable.
As women gain some economic power, and the recognition for it, they grow in confidence. And when they are empowered they will take action on behalf of other vulnerable young women. Cluster Level Associations, the community-based institutions made up of representatives of six to nine smaller village self help groups, can be particularly powerful, having links to wider support networks and local government offices.
We can put an end to this violence
Send a Cow’s gender and inclusion programme partnered with the Global Women’s Institute at George Washington University in order to develop our ethical collection of data on gender-based violence in our programme areas, strengthen the assessment of our work on intimate partner violence, and increase capacity of our programme staff to deliver quality prevention programmes.
The results of research focused on one of our projects in Kenya confirms that our work was targeting a population where intimate partner violence is a very significant issue, and that our programme can be highly effective for our project participants, especially women. Our work with THM opened the door for discussions amongst family members about the causes of intimate partner violence, and the impact on the women who are the victims of it.
Of the 274 women who were interviewed as part of the study, 46% stopped experiencing physical violence, 21% no longer experienced sexual violence, 20% no longer experienced emotional violence, and 13% no longer experienced economic violence.
This is the well-designed and effective work we hope to share with fellow programme delivery agencies and activists during these 16 days when a global spotlight is on this work.
We cannot ignore the most significant issue in the lives of the woman and girls we work with, which affects their physical and mental health, their freedom and human rights, and not least their ability to participate in our project interventions which develop their skills and capacity to fight poverty.
As part of this campaign, please talk to people about the importance of this issue and the work we’re doing, so that we can together bring an end to violence against women and girls.
by Sofanit Mesfin, Regional Gender and Social Inclusion Coordinator, Send a Cow