Bundled Together: Empowering Women in the Face of Violence
Posted on August 08, 2012, by Melissa Winkler, International Rescue Committee
In the parched and drought-ravaged Mudug region of central Somalia, Amina* had to trek increasingly long distances to find water and food for her family. Reluctantly, she says, she pulled her daughters out of school to help out – sending them to fetch water at the closest functioning borehole, six kilometers away. Walking long distances to fetch water, food or firewood in such volatile regions is a daily risk to thousands of girls and women. It was on one of these journeys to the water point that a stranger raped Amina’s 10-year-old daughter.
IRC counselors in Congo gather survivors of violence to share stories and offer support. Photo Credit: Peter Biro.
Nish* was just one year old in 1991 when her family fled chronic violence in Somalia and sought refuge in the sprawling Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya where she grew up. But this camp was no safe haven for women and girls, not then and not now. When she was 14, her father forced her to marry a much older man. School ended for her then and child bearing began. So did the beating. “From the very beginning I was beaten by my husband,” she recalls painfully, describing the abuse as constant and hidden. “He would threaten to kill me if I left him. One day he beat me so badly, I could no longer hide it.” Women who took notice helped Nish get to an IRC women’s support center for assistance.
After years of abuse, Fatimata’s* husband did try to kill her, with a blow to her head with a machete. When that didn’t work, he cut off her fingers. While she was being treated at a hospital in Monrovia, Liberia, her husband was arrested. But weeks later, a relative bribed police and he was freed.
Last week, at a primary school in North Kivu, Congo – now a shelter for hundreds of people uprooted by recent violence – our team met Christine*. She was brought in on a makeshift stretcher – bleeding, crying and disoriented. She had been attacked by four armed men hours earlier while she was heading to work in a field. An IRC social worker at the site sought to calm and counsel her and arrange for a transfer to a hospital that was equipped to provide post-rape treatment. The social worker told Christine that what happened was not her fault.
In these countries and other crisis zones where the International Rescue Committee provides humanitarian aid, millions of women and girls have witnessed extreme violence, suffered immeasurable loss, endured the chaos of displacement and experienced unimaginable abuse and brutality.
Yet in what sometimes seems like a hopeless situation, there is hope and progress.
“Change is a process that doesn’t happen overnight,” Esther Karnley told me. She's the IRC’s feisty and passionate women’s protection advocate in Liberia, where a recent government survey found that nearly one in five Liberian women has suffered sexual violence in her lifetime. “We still have a long way to go before Liberian women are safe in their homes and communities," Esther says. "But every day I see women growing stronger, attitudes shifting and communities becoming more supportive.”
Esther Karnley in front of the White House. She was in Washington DC to present an IRC report on widespread domestic violence in post-conflict West Africa. Photo credit: Elisabeth Roesch
In Liberia and nearly 20 other crisis-impacted countries, aiding, protecting and empowering women and girls are centerpieces of the IRC’s humanitarian aid programs. We provide survivors of violence with medical care, counseling, legal aid and other critical support. We work to reduce women’s vulnerability to violence through innovative empowerment programs. And we work with local governments and organizations to prevent and respond to gender-based violence.
In villages across Sierra Leone for example, the IRC teams up with chiefs, religious leaders and men’s groups to promote women’s rights in the home and society and challenge oppressive practices.
At-risk adolescent girls in Haiti find sanctuary in IRC centers where they can get mentoring and counseling and participate in confidence and skills-building activities.
In Iraq, our teams train police on what sexual violence is, how to relate to victims and what their rights are.
In Congo, Ivory Coast, Uganda and Burundi, the IRC supports women’s associations that provide training in marketable skills like sewing and soap-making and where women collectively save money and give out loans to set up small businesses. Access to funds enables vulnerable women to become financially independent and tends to create a safer and more equitable environment at home.
The IRC partners with grassroots women’s groups in eastern Congo to teach marketable new skills to vulnerable women, including many who have survived unimaginable violence. Photo credit: Sinziana Demian
In Somalia, Amina and her daughters no longer spend their days collecting water, thanks to a newly rehabilitated borehole and water pipeline in their community. The girls are back at school. Such IRC projects serve a double purpose: protecting vulnerable women and girls while increasing community access to water.
As for Nish, she mustered up the courage to leave her abusive husband. She’s now a vocal advocate against forced marriage. She also works as a mentor in an IRC program for adolescent refugee girls in Kenya’s Dadaab Camp—giving guidance and support on issues ranging from health, education and self-esteem to preventing sexual abuse and exploitation.
In Liberia, the IRC’s Esther Karnley has been invited to join a new committee formed by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to help develop a law making domestic violence a crime. This comes after extensive advocacy on the part of Karnley and colleagues to put domestic violence on the national agenda.
“We sometimes compare women to a stick that can be fragile and easily broken,” Esther says. “But when you put many sticks together to form a bundle, it becomes strong. Everywhere, women must join hands and not rest until they are safe in their homes and communities. We must come together as bundles and raise our voices to people in positions of power. That’s how change happens.”
*Names have been changed to protect the identity of survivors of violence.
Melissa Winkler is Senior Director, Communications at the International Rescue Committee