Monday, June 21, 2010

Gray Areas & Speaking up about Gender-Based Violence

Perhaps the project I have the most involvement in during my Peace Corps service deals with coordinating women’s empowerment girl’s clubs and conferences that are designed to educate young women about their health and human rights with the following vision. Our vision statement declares that, “We envision a future in which young Mozambican women are equipped with the skills and self-confidence needed to make their own decisions about what is important to their lives and futures. We envision REDES as a national movement linking young women throughout the country and encouraging them to work together to advocate for women’s rights, learn about women’s health, and become leaders in their communities. We hope to someday soon see young women become their own best and strongest advocates.” This REDES Project has become a huge passion of mine, and so I suppose that my friend Callie called for my advice because of my ties to this cause.

Callie began her Peace Corps service about 8 months ago and recently got involved in the REDES Project, helping a group form at her local high school after bringing some enthusiastic students to attend our regional conferences in April. At the conferences, PCVs get a chance to see girls learning and discussing many challenging issues that they face such as domestic violence and sexual abuse (especially with minors). Unfortunately domestic violence and sexual abuse are fairly common in this machismo culture coupled with the fact that much of society, particularly women, have little education and do not know their rights or are not in a position to stand up for them because they are economically dependent (although this is changing). The conference is great because the girls hear from strong, Mozambican women who started off just like the school girls—many growing up in the bush in poor families—who worked their way up to become leaders of women’s rights organizations in Mozambique and who are the exception to the rule in that they openly demand their rights. At our conference in April, two of the speakers spoke about personal experiences, which really touched all of us and served as an example of how any woman can be a victim of gender-based violence, but all of us should speak up! In this particular case, the guest speaker’s husband had tried to use a heavy hand to resolve a marital argument and as soon as he did, she screamed until everyone in the neighborhood came and so did the police. She urged the girls not to keep quiet from embarrassment or to protect the family’s reputation, because once you let gender-based violence happen once with silence then it easily slips into habit. The other guest speaker confessed that she had an abortion after an older powerful gentlemen had used force to sleep with her, and how she had ended up later having two children with another man in her life, but ultimately was raising them as a single mother. The guest speakers’ speeches hit close to home for many girls and after they finished speaking, one confessed a secret she had been harboring a long time and asked them for advice on how she could get help. I have followed up with these guest speakers since the conference and know that more conference participants also called for help with stories of gender-based violence that had happened in their lives who no longer wanted to stay quiet and needed advice on the steps to seek justice. More than anything, these women and girls just needed to know that they were not alone. They wanted to know someone supported their decision to speak up because it is not easy and takes a lot of courage.

When Callie went back to her community after the conference, Alegria, an older woman who had been her Portuguese tutor and had become Callie’s friend, informed her of a grave situation. Alegria’s 49-year-old husband was cheating on her with multiple minor-aged girls! Although sadly this information was not new to Alegria, she had just learned that her husband got a 13-year-old girl pregnant who had given premature birth to a baby boy. Callie went to visit the young girl and reported that he birth was hard on the young girl’s body, which has not yet fully developed, and consequently the girl had dropped out of school. She is an orphan, living with her grandmother, and the older man is paying their family to support the baby. The economic incentive is enough for the family to keep quiet and the girl does not realize that what the man did is even a crime—just imagine the man started having sexual relations with her when she was just 11! He is rumored to be having inappropriate relationships with other young girls in his neighborhood too.

It does not just stop there, but he is a high school teacher and it is pretty commonly known that he goes after students, but it is hard to provide concrete evidence. That is, until this evidence of a baby cropped up! Alegria confessed to Callie that she was sick of it and wanted to draw the line, go to the police and report him, and then divorce him. Callie said that she’d help Alegria, but Alegria responded that she would like to think about it some more. Alegria talked to fellow community members who advised her that the police would not really do anything and that his life was almost already over at age 49, so they should just leave it be and “let God punish him one day.”

Callie called me more and more upset by the day about what she should do in the situation because she felt it was her moral duty to go to the authorities, but also wanted to respect Alegria’s wishes. I was set to meet with the local government representative in charge of gender, Daniela, who has become a good friend of mine, so I invited Callie to come talk with Daniela so we could get some advice from a Mozambican woman that’d understand both the law and culturally-appropriate way to handle it more so than us foreigners involved in this situation. Daniela wanted to take the information to the police as a public crime and get the young girl some help from social services, but Callie wanted to clear it with Alegria first. Daniela said that we could not just sit back or else he was going to continue, and it would one more case adding to the overwhelming silence that occurs commonly when gender-based violence happens in the community.

Callie talked more with Alegria who by that point had shifted completely in favor of keeping quiet because she was worried that her life would end up worse off in the end by turning in her husband. She had decided that a divorce would not be possible or snitching on him because she is unemployed and economically dependent on him. She felt that the community would marginalize her if it became public knowledge and her husband would end up in jail. Poor Callie was torn between taking the case to the police on her own and respecting her friend’s wishes in this gray area, with no clear-cut white or black correct answer. Daniela even proposed a way that they could anonymously tell authorities. In the end, after getting more guidance from the Peace Corps, Callie decided not to go to the police although this story continues to weigh on her heart. She is devoting her energy 100% into the REDES Project, and along with Daniela, we will be holding a training in August to educate 25 local teachers about how to start REDES groups in their schools and use the curriculum. Our hope is that the REDES Project helps empower these women and put them in a position where they can and will speak up in the future, free of economic dependence and full of self-confidence! And where this vicious cycle will not continue to repeat itself.

*By chance, I just so happened to be Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas Kristof & Sheryl Wudunn, which is about the oppression that many women face in developing countries and what is being done about it. I highly recommend it!

*Some names changed to protect privacy

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