Interwoven Violence: “Girls, They are Nothing.”

Two weeks ago, the UK held the largest ever conference on sexual violence. Hosted by William Hague and Angelina Jolie, the summit brought together world leaders, civil society, activists, and survivors for the first ever high-level event to be held on ending sexual violence in war. Although I wasn’t in London (believe me I wanted to be), I was constantly scouring the news, checking twitter, and harassing colleagues in the UK for updates. As someone who is extremely passionate about ending sexual violence, it was inspiring to see the world’s attention turned toward this issue, even if just for a short while.

There’s been quite a lot written since the summit ended on whether it accomplished what it set out to do, or if it really accomplished anything at all. Many critiques have been from survivors, academics, and NGOs, on the simplistic narrative of “rape as a weapon of war,” on the sidelining of grassroots activists, and on the fake spotlight of celebrity activism. Originally, I was going to write a piece about my own opinions on these different problematic issues, and how I felt after the summit. But really, I can sum all of that up quite quickly: yes, the summit had flaws, but it was the largest global event to bring together that many world leaders, activists, and citizens on the topic of sexual violence. I truly believe that was a critical first step, and that the momentum can be continued. Instead of the summit, what I really want to talk about today is something that’s been hitting a bit closer to home recently…and that’s violence against women in Tanzania.

During the same week the summit was happening in London, the UK High Commission held its own Tanzanian version of the event. My boss, the UN Women Country Representative, knows how passionate I am about this issue, and invited me along to sit in on the panel and discussions. Technically, the evening was supposed to center on ending sexual violence in conflict. However, as a country that is extremely peaceful (as every Tanzanian likes to remind you, “we aren’t like those Kenyans”), the conversation turned to a similar issue with the same sorts of consequences – physical and sexual violence against women (VAW) more generally. Although the event featured high level UN representatives and different ambassadors, the highlight of the night really was the testimonies from different NGOs, activists, and survivors on the situation of gender based violence (GBV) in Tanzania.

“He owed her brother money, so he chopped off her arm.”

“Her aunt locked her in a room to be raped, she was only 13.”

“Her parents had no money, so they married her off at twelve to get some cows.”

“The police don’t see sex workers as human; they rape me every week. They rape us all whenever we complain.”

“I was raped by my uncle when I was thirteen. He paid my parents, so they dropped the charges.”

“If I asked where he had been, he would beat me and then lock me in the house.”

“Girls, they are nothing. That is the perception here.”

Tanzania isn’t in conflict, yet, women and girls around the country are routinely beaten, raped, and killed for the sole fact that they are women. They are seen as less powerful, not as important, and extremely disposable. While global attention may have been on the summit in London, Tanzania was able to have a different, but just as relevant conversation. Here, interweaving webs of violence affect women not just in conflict, but in their everyday and ordinary lives.

Working on these issues on the ground, it’s so easy to see how gender equality, poverty, and development are all interconnected. Girls are not valued as highly as boys, so they usually drop out of school earlier and receive less education. This usually leads to early marriage, and because of the lack of sexual health rights, early pregnancy. Marriage, pregnancy, and insufficient education usually decreases a woman’s economic opportunities, with her lack of financial resources continuing the cycle of poverty. Add to this almost non-existent inheritance laws and land rights, you can see how women are in extremely weak positions in society. All of these factors feed into women and girl’s vulnerability, increasing their risk of physical and sexual violence.

As I’m writing this too you, I’m sitting in a little town in central Tanzania, here with UN Women to open a new gender and children’s desk at the local police station. Today there was a huge launch of the desk, with the police and the community celebrating the opening of a new space where women and children can go and report on VAW cases. Even though its several weeks later, and in a completely different geographic and cultural region in Tanzania, the issues and stories I heard today are the same. Girls raped, children abused, women having to just learn to live with their husbands beatings. What made it worse today though, was that for the first time, I really felt overwhelmed by the magnitude of the situation, almost with a sense of hopelessness. Sitting in a desk in Dar es Salaam, you work on different policy issues, and try to convince yourself this will eventually lead to small, incremental changes in the lives of women. Here though, it feels like an insurmountable challenge to be able to create any kind of lasting or sustainable change. The gender desk is launched, but women don’t have a safe house to stay in after they are abused. Even if they do report on domestic violence, they just have to go back to their husbands after they leave the police. A rape conviction cannot be sentenced unless you can prove the man penetrated the women, and that she specifically did not give consent. Police officers lack training to gather the evidence needed to support these two criteria (and even if they, did they don’t have proper storage facilities), so hardly any rape cases make it to court. Domestic violence is seen as a family matter, with most survivors dropping their cases after the accused financially compensates them, or they are convinced to just take the problem to traditional leaders. Even if someone does go through all of the hurdles of reporting and trying to prosecute, it often doesn’t matter, since many perpetrators bribe their way out of punishment anyways. One of the men we interviewed today, when asked about cases of sexual violence in the town, said “well, sometimes wives just don’t perform their wifely duties, and don’t want to have sex – so then there is violence.” And that’s it. Sometimes women just don’t do what they’re supposed to, and that means they deserve to be harmed.

I guess this is why it pisses me off when people sideline GBV as a “woman’s issue.” The average economy loses the equivalent of to 1 – 2% of its GDP per year due to economic losses associated with VAW, but it only affects women? Since women account for 70% of African agriculture, decreases in labour productivity have severe consequences for local food sustainability, yet it only gets discussed through a gender lens? I can’t count how many stories I’ve heard of mothers, widows, daughters, or sisters being beaten, disfigured or killed, yet even when half of the population is being discriminated against, its only an issue for women’s rights activists to tackle? 47% of Tanzanian women experience GBV (which is most likely a sorely underreported figure), but it is still such taboo issue, something to speak of in shame rather than address head on. And this isn’t just an African or Tanzanian problem – North America has insanely high gender based violence figures as well. These problems are rooted in the systematic discrimination against women that still persists all over the world. To sideline this as only a gender issue ignores the wider repercussions VAW has for our entire society.

I’ve tried to paint a horrible picture, because the situation is horrible. It is just as important to note, though, that there are many amazing Tanzanians working together to try and end GBV. For example, at the High Commission event, the room was filled with inspiring activists who had dedicated their lives to fighting discrimination in their communities. As many women said that night, even breaking the silence on VAW and GBV is a much-needed first step, the room humming with their positive energy as everyone discussed what needed to be done to end sexual violence in Tanzania. Or take today, where I marched with hundreds of people through the streets of a little Tanzanian town, to raise awareness on GBV and the new police desk for VAW cases. The entire community came out to the launch, listening to discussions, plays, songs and speeches on the importance of working together to end violence. The police were just so happy and hopeful, dancing and singing into the night to celebrate something as simple as a gender desk opening in their community. The entire time we were there, officers continually came up to us to tell us how grateful they were to have new skills and resources to deal with GBV. One police desk is a small drop in a huge ocean of challenges – but seeing men, women, boys, girls, police, judges, and everyone else in the community mobilize themselves on ending violence…well it at least provides a glimmer of hope.

Although I would have loved to be in the UK listening to summit discussions on how to end sexual violence in war, it doesn’t really matter where I am, the problems are the same. These patterns of violence, rooted in gender inequality and discrimination, are the same. Whether it is sexual violence in war, or a husband forcing his wife to have sex with him, or thirteen-year-old girls being married off due to poverty, violence against women occurs all around the world. “Girls, they are nothing,” I was told today. That statement has never felt more real.

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