Whipped for Water

Posted on August 13, 2012, by Cynthia Breilh, Women of Vision


I sat in my seat, stunned. A group of us were in Zambia to celebrate the birth of a well, which had been donated by one of the couples traveling with us. The women of the village put on a colorful skit showing all of the reasons they were so happy to finally have clean water in their village. Although it was in a language we could not understand, the women were clear and expressive as they demonstrated how the well is saving time, decreasing illness, improving nutrition, providing garden irrigation and giving girls opportunity to learn. But at the point where one woman started whipping another woman with a stick I quickly asked one of the local World Vision staff what was happening. “She is showing you that because of the well she does not get as many beatings from her husband as she used to,” he whispered. I sat stunned. The rest of the village seemed to find it completely normal and in fact humorous. How in the world is walking 3 miles, in the heat, barefoot along a stony path, with 70 pounds of water on your back or head, deserving of a whipping?  Later our host explained more of the story to my group of shocked travelers.

Women and water skit. (Photo courtesy Women of Vision/World Vision.)

Even more disturbing for me was a recent visit to Eastern Congo, a region of ugly and ongoing conflict. We interviewed too many women and girls who had been brutally gang raped by roving militias who use rape to further hurt and shame any village they attack. The girls may be victimized a second time if their families decide to reject them because of the shame they bring. Trashed by the “enemy,” rape survivors are considered worthless for marriage then rejected and abandoned like unwanted animals. Seventeen year old Olivia told us that when she returned home after months of captivity in a pit, with a child by one of her many rapists, her mother turned away and said, “You are dead, don’t ever come back here.”  In a country where literally family is everything, these atrocities are a violation of every basic human right. But there is more. The list of gender based violence (GBV) abuses goes on and includes honor killings, forced early marriage, female genital cutting, battery, marital rape, domestic violence, workplace harassment, female infanticide and sexual exploitation. Thankfully there are great organizations like World Vision, Heal Africa, and others who can provide protection and support for survivors. But we must also deal with the underlying issues, the roots of GBV, and seriously invest in prevention.

Gender-based violence is intended to maintain gender inequity and reinforce traditional gender roles. It is often insidious, woven into the fabric of cultural and religious beliefs and practices. So it makes sense that to change the landscape of GBV we must work within the religious and cultural contexts of countries and communities. Because my organization, World Vision, is faith-based, we have the responsibility and the opportunity to work at some of the root levels of GBV. Birthed out of our programs addressing stigma around HIV and AIDS in South Africa, World Vision has developed, tested, and now is implementing a new program called Channels of Hope for Gender, mobilizing church and community leaders for gender justice. Implemented recently in the Solomon Islands, which has one of the highest rates of domestic violence in the world, we are seeing significant results.

I have come to appreciate that there are many forms of gender-based violence, and yes, men can be victims as well. In too many places it is accepted by women and men that it is OK for women and girls to be oppressed, beaten or exploited. Girls and women may be considered less powerful, intelligent or capable, viewed as property (after all, they may have been purchased or sold for marriage), or that they deserve or need to be “disciplined.” Sadly, sometimes women themselves perpetuate harmful beliefs and practices. Any gender justice programming or interventions must include and engage both women and men. In the case of our skit in Zambia, it was finally explained that the reason the women were whipped by their husbands was because sometimes they were late bringing home water. Their husbands suspected they were late because they were dallying with other men along the way. Really?  

Cynthia Breilh is National Director of Women of Vision, a volunteer ministry of World Vision.