Picturing gender, ethics and health systems: a competition for photographers

20/08/2014

The aim of this competition, organised by Research in Gender and Ethics (RinGs), a new cross-RPC partnership between Future Health Systems, ReBUILD and RESYST, is to capture the everyday stories of the ways that gender plays out within health systems around the world. The winning entry will be exhibited at the Global Symposium on Health Systems Research, and be used to illustrate our website, and in other published materials with full credit to the photographer.

Gender-sensitive health policy is a feature of international commitments and consensus documents and national-level normative statements and implementation guidance in many countries. However, there are gaps in our knowledge about how gender and ethics interface with health systems. Our project shines a light on some of the ways that gender and health systems come together in a variety of settings. We are looking for photographers who can help us communicate this area of work visually. We welcome images of people of all genders from all areas of the health system, all around the world – be creative!

The deadline for entries is the 1 September 2014.

The judging

Photographs will be judged by a panel of gender specialists and a representative from the creative industry. They will be marked according to:

  1. Their content, i.e. their relevance to subject.
  2. Their ability to tell the story of gender and health systems, i.e. the message they contain, their creativity. We are looking for original and authentic visual representations of health systems in action.
  3. The technical merit of the photo, i.e. exposure, focus, colour, lighting etc.

We are looking for images which challenge stereotypes, encourage the viewer to learn more and act differently, and which respect the integrity of any people who may be photographed. There is a rich discussion on the ethics of photography in international development which should help guide entrants. Further information can be found here and here.

Who can enter and how to submit?

Those who have an experience of, or interest in, gender and health systems are very welcome to send images.

Send up to a maximum of three photos by email to RinGs.RPC@gmail.com

Submission requirements:

  • Size: At least 1MB
  • Print resolution: 300 dpi
  • Format: JPEG or tiff only
  • Landscape and portrait images are acceptable
  • Although some digital enhancement is acceptable we cannot accept images that have been digitally altered to change what is portrayed.

Send each photo separately and include in your message the following information:

  • Name of photographer:
  • Photographer email:
  • Photographer phone:
  • Title of photograph:
  • Location (country and city/town/village where the photograph was taken):
  • The date (if unknown, please provide the year) each photograph was taken:
  • The level of consent provided from any people pictured in the photo (see informed consent guidelines for more information):

Submit your entry:

All images should be emailed to RinGs.RPC@gmail.com by 1 September. We look forward to receiving your entries.

For more details please download the entry requirements and terms. Information about informed consent and a sample consent form are also available.


Motorways to Nowhere?

19/08/2014

Jenny_Edwards200Jenny Edwards

International development agencies have been pouring money into one-size fits all interventions for women and girls’ empowerment. Increasingly the business case ‘Invest in a girl and the world benefits’ is becoming popular among donors, NGOs and private sector supporters. But quick-fix solutions are rarely either the answer or sufficient to deal with what are essentially complex and intertwined problems. The analogy we use within the Pathways of Women’s Empowerment Programme is that agencies are building ‘motorways to nowhere’. In focusing on the destination down a zooming highway rather than journeys along more meandering pathways, development agencies may be missing the fact that women’s experiences of empowerment are not straight or straightforward: there are obstacles, they do not travel alone, routes are circuitous and there may be many stops along the way. Donors need to look beyond targets, destinations and tick boxes and explore the complexity of women’s lives and relationships. Feminisms, Empowerment and Development, one of a series of new books from Pathways published by Zed, debates some of these complexities and highlights lessons learned about how women experience change that were uncovered by our research.

What is empowering to one woman may not be equally so for others

One of the important findings from a survey of three generations of women in Ghana which researcher Akosua Darkwah talks about in the book, is this: education for the older generation guaranteed a pathway to valuable formal sector jobs, but this is no longer the sure-fire route to secure, decent work for a younger generation faced with a more unpredictable labour market. In Brazil, Terezinha Gonçalves’ research found that when middle class women employ a domestic worker, it frees them from their chores to pursue empowering professional careers. However, as these women often do not value domestic work as a profession they fail to provide decent pay and conditions to their predominantly, black female staff. These examples highlight the importance of context: geographical, historical, class, race etc. For interventions to be successful they need to be fully appreciative of women’s lived experiences and not see ‘poor women’ as one homogenous group. This need to pay attention to context is demonstrated in Pathways’ survey on work, where for women in Bangladesh and Egypt work outside the home was seen as empowering but not so for women in Ghana where this was something they had always experienced.

Hidden Pathways

The differing experiences of women and girls can be clearly seen in what Pathways’ researchers refer to as ‘hidden pathways’. Focusing only on economic, political and legal routes of empowerment through interventions such as micro-credit, quotas and law reform risks missing some of the less obvious but still important aspects of women’s lives. For instance, although representations of women on television and the media have sometimes proved problematic and disempowering, Aanmona Priyadarshini’s and Samia Rahim’s study in Bangladesh shows how television has captured imagination across classes. Women experience pleasure and hope for their own lives from shared viewing, but also choose, judge or disregard narratives depending on how they connect with them. In Pakistan, a participant in Neelam Hussain’s research explained how watching a woman in a job interview on television helped her to know how to behave in a situation she had yet to experience.

Horizons of Possibility

Expanding the horizons of possibility is one of the key messages of the book. Although economic, legal and political interventions are important they are not enough on their own. The process of empowerment requires ‘creating consciousness’ or helping women to see themselves as equal citizens entitled to rights. Hania Sholkamy says that one of the key elements of a feminist social programme is to support women in recognising their citizenship rights. This importance is clearly demonstrated by Saptagram, a social mobilisation organisation in Bangladesh, the subject of Naila Kabeer’s and Lopita Huq’s chapter. A key element of Saptagram’s strategy was transforming women’s consciousness. As one of its members said ‘I have learnt about our rights. Now I understand I have the same rights as my husband… Whether I get my rights or not, I can still demand them’.

Pathways of Change

So is there an answer, or a solution? Many of Pathways’ messages are not new or earth-shattering but they bear repeating in an age of what Lisa VeneKlasen from Just Associates at a recent Pathways conference referred to as ‘clickivism’: the idea that just pressing one button will lift a woman from poverty. We need to listen to women’s experiences, learn from their lived realities on what works and what doesn’t. We need to support them in realising their rights and give support to women’s organisations to demand these rights. We need to tackle the issues of power that sustain women’s inequality; the deeper issues behind what hinders women’s unequal representation in parliaments and in the board rooms. We need to do more than just give a woman a cow and expect her to change the world. As Hania Sholkamy notes: ‘Alleviating poverty and enabling women to make some income can better lives, but the enabling environment that confirms the right to work, to property, to safety, to voice, to sexuality and to freedom is not created by sewing machines or micro-credit alone’.

Jenny Edwards is Programme Officer for the Pathways of Women’s Empowerment Programme, based at IDS. 

Read other posts from Jenny Edwards:

A version of this blog was first published on The Guardian on 23rd July 2014 under the title “We cannot give a woman a cow and expect her to change the world”. 


Women in Politics: Beyond Numbers

24/07/2014

Jenny_Edwards200Following David Cameron’s cabinet reshuffle, the UK government has moved from having three women in the cabinet to five: and these two new members are working mothers, a presence not there before. This still fails to improve the overall gender equity: according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union the UK currently ranks 65th globally for women parliamentary membership. Women comprise 22.6 per cen of the total UK parliament, compared to 51 per cent of the population. A focus just on numbers, however, doesn’t give us a complete picture. Even if countries have high numbers of women political representatives it doesn’t necessarily mean that the women are full, active members; they could just be there for window dressing, and they may not promote women’s rights once they get into politics. Recent research conducted in Bangladesh, Brazil, Egypt, Ghana, India, Palestine, Sierra Leone and Sudan suggests that exploring women’s political pathways from the ground up may provide a more comprehensive understanding.

What do we mean by politics?

Lessons from the eight country studies suggest that we need to have a broader understanding of the history of women’s political activism before they entered formal politics. Most of the women interviewed had been involved in community support professions before taking up politics, such as teaching, nursing and NGO work. Quite a few of the women had also been involved in student politics. Community service and charity work were also significant aspects of their lives before formal politics. In Bangladesh many of the local women councillors interviewed had helped in providing emergency relief and welfare, building them a reputation for aiding the disadvantaged. In Ghana one woman councillor explained how her work with the youth was important for appealing to a key constituency as 15-24 year olds constitute almost a quarter of Ghana’s population. It is important that political empowerment training programmes recognise the full extent of women’s experiences and help them to draw upon this in building their constituencies and working in formal political spaces.

Where and when politics happen

Politics happens in private and public spaces for 24 hours a day, not just in parliamentary headquarters between the hours of 9 to 5. For young girls growing up in a political family this can provide an invaluable early immersion into the political world. A councillor from India explained how she had an open house growing up, ‘with endless streams of people coming and going’. She, ‘enjoyed meeting people, talking to them, learning about their problems, listening in how [her] father and uncles solved these’. It can also, however, be exclusionary. In a recent article for Contestations, Mariz Tadros asserts that parliamentary sessions and council meetings held late into the evening block access for those women politicians with unpaid care responsibilities. She contends that if we are to be serious about inclusive political representation, ‘Processes of deliberation and decision-making be they at the local or at the parliamentary level need to be sensitive to unpaid care responsibilities and how they feature in timelines’.

Family support?

For women in the case studies, family support was key to their ability to carry out their political duties. Husbands provided moral, organisational and campaign assistance, even cutting across party divides. Few husbands, however, provided childcare support and their motives were not always completely altruistic. Power and prestige for the family were motivations for many of them. The support given does however go against much feminist literature, which often casts men in a disempowering light. But let’s also not forget that family importance can be less positive. Maintaining political power in the hands of a few powerful families creates an elitist system. It also reduces the women’s autonomy in terms of what they do once they are in government. Nevertheless, women’s relationships are a significant factor in how they operate within politics and recognition of this and support for these family networks is important.

Supporting women’s politics from the ground up

If we are to move beyond numbers and women getting into cabinet being front page news (rather than just the norm), we need to support women much earlier in their political careers. We need to recognise that politics begins informally and to support women’s roles in this and also their jump, should they choose to make it, into formal politics. We need to move away from ‘projectivising’ political empowerment training and support programmes and provide help for women over the long-term, not just focusing on elections and then abandoning them once the vote is over. This also means following up on what worked and what didn’t and providing continued support for those women who advocate a social and gender justice agenda who failed to get elected. Most of all we should recognise the importance of relationships. This includes recognising and supporting the roles of family members in helping women in their political careers, but also taking into account women’s unpaid care responsibilities. If we take this much broader and also bottom-up approach to women’s entry into politics, perhaps then we will begin to see a much broader, comprehensive spectrum of society within politics.

Further reading: Women in Politics: Gender, Power and Development by Mariz Tadros.

Jenny Edwards is Programme Officer for the Pathways of Women’s Empowerment Programme, based at IDS. 

 

 


The paradoxical role of families in women and girls health in slums

09/07/2014

Pauline OosterhoffPauline profile

One of the things that strikes one most clearly in working in the slums in Kenya is that, as in many developing countries, the state is barely present in most people’s lives. For the women my colleague Emily Kahega Igonya and I encountered in Nairobi’s slums last week, the government was inactive while they were sold by their sisters or brothers-in-law, tricked into unpaid work with false promises of education, and kicked out of their parental homes as orphans.

Yet Kenya’s recent constitutional reforms are based on the idea that devolution, handing off central government responsibilities to municipalities, can solve people’s problems by bringing government closer to their lives. This seems doubtful, given that for most of the women in slums we talked to, it is family and friends, not the state, that provides them with support. It made us wonder how and to what extent state policies can interfere in dysfunctional families, when it is the family that provides for the services that dysfunctional states fail to provide.

The impact of the new Kenyan constitution on health outcomes

According to the new Kenyan constitution introduced in May 2010, all Kenyans have the right to the highest attainable standard of health. To realise access to health, the constitutional reforms prescribe “devolution”, a transfer of responsibility from the national government to the counties. Devolution should bring the government closer to the people.

Last week Emily and I examined the effects of Kenya’s constitutional reforms on access to HIV and AIDS services for women and girls in Nairobi slums. We worked with HIV-positive women, all young mothers, on digital storytelling to inform policy makers of the effects of these national policies on their health. All women described betrayal in their families –often by other women- that exposed them to HIV, violence, and destitution. Yet it is their sense of family –even if it is just their own children – that allows them to survive in the absence of a functioning state.

When Larissa, a widow with two children, completed primary school in a village, her mother was no longer able to pay for her school fees. She called her elder sister in Nairobi, who offered to pay for her education. Upon arrival in Nairobi, however, her sister told her that she would only pay for school fees if Larissa agreed to marry her husband as his second wife. When she refused, her sister’s husband presented Larissa with a widower with two children who would marry her and pay her school fees if she were to take care of him and his children. She ran away and met a man with a job in a restaurant who paid her school fees and married her. Shortly after the delivery of her second child, he fell ill with AIDS. He encouraged her to seek treatment from international donors but he denied that he was HIV positive to her until the very end. She has now been inherited by his younger brother. He takes good care of her, and she is pregnant with his child. Who is failing women like her?

The implementation of the devolution of health services began last year, with the election of governors and county principals, but it has barely affected these women. For sex workers -some of whom have been involved in sex work since their early teens – the effect on their health has been clearly negative. Municipalities interpret and enforce laws on sex work more harshly than the central authorities did, chasing women off the streets and detaining them. Police detention makes it harder for them to take their AIDS medicines. Sex workers reported having to stop their medication completely, or change to herbal medication. In their perception, devolution means that “law enforcement can now use their cars freely to extort more bribes from us later at night.”

Sex work, the family and state support

For sex workers, other sex workers and community-based organizations are the main form of support after their own family failed. Rose, a young mother, was taken in by older sex workers when she was orphaned at the age of 15 and rejected by her family. She has worked as a sex worker ever since. Sarah’s mother decided that her job was done after her daughter finished primary school. Sarah decided to go to Nairobi to live with her aunt, who could not pay for all her expenses. She had to look for money herself, and at the age of fourteen she found herself on the streets as a sex worker. When her aunt guessed how she made her money, she threw her out, leaving her at the mercy of different men who took her in until they were bored or she became pregnant. Linda finished high school and went to college, hoping to become a secretary. She came to Nairobi to look for work and live with her uncle. He had no money to pay for her. The only people who were willing to help her find a job and a home were bargirls who moonlighted as sex workers.

Women we spoke with –no matter how poor- had done their best to avoid the state health services for years. As Lucy, a young widowed mother of two, explains, “there is no confidentiality, the lines are long and the hours are short, and everyone can see you.” Instead, they obtain AIDS medicines through internationally funded and managed services like MSF and CDC. Kenyan community-based organizations, like HAKI and COTANET, help women to organise themselves and establish their own peer support systems. But for housing, food and other essentials, it is their own family they rely on first. And when that system fails- without any safety net offered by the state, charities or INGO’s – women are exposed to many risks, including HIV. Policies that aim to support the right to health of women and girls in slums need to recognize the central roles of families in responding to governmental irresponsibility.

All names in this article are fictional to protect the identity of the women.

Pauline Oosterhoff is a Research Fellow for the Participation, Power and Social Change (PPSC) team at IDS. She can be found on Twitter as: @PPJOosterhoff

Previous blog posts by Pauline Oosterhoff:


5 take home messages from Pathways of Women’s Empowerment: Beyond 2015

30/06/2014

Kate HawkinsKate Hawkins

The life of a meeting report writer is a lonely one. It is easy to get caught up in the energy and excitement of an issue when surrounded by fascinating and challenging speakers. But once everyone has flown home and you are wading through 50 pages of meeting notes, trying to decipher acronyms and cryptic quotes you sometimes feel like you are drowning in a mass of information you will never make legible to those who didn’t have the privilege of attending. So to give myself a bit of impetus and help order my thoughts I have come up with a list of what I consider the top 5 take home messages from the recent Pathways of Women’s Empowerment meeting.

To add to the complexity of synthesising simple messages, the meeting made it clear that there is no single feminist nor a single development actor. Those involved in this field inhabit very different worlds, subject positions, politics, and positionalities. When we sit outside the places that people live and look in on them, we can fail to make sense of, listen to, and resonate with women’s lives. Those caveats aside, here are the messages:

1. That there is a gulf between policy advocates engaged in post-2015 agenda setting and the fears, dreams and demands of many women organising in disparate settings. The skills required to track and influence advocacy at the global level are very technical and a particular cadre of feminists occupies this space doing vital and necessary work. But somehow, post-Beijing, the parallel structures which enable these staff to adequately network with women at the grass roots have been lost. (Re)building this dynamic and organic network of links and entry-points for dialogue is a key priority.

2. There is a translational issue. Women’s movements have been just as good as any other advocacy group in developing clear messages for policy. However, what is understood by the term ‘women’s empowerment’ differs between large development institutions and social movements struggling for justice. All too often empowerment is instrumentalised – as exemplified by catchphrases like ‘gender equality is smart economics’. The reductionism and sloganeering of the development sector sometimes strips the politics out of the work.

3. Feminist networks and monitoring, learning and evaluation experts need to work together. Participants at the meeting decried the difficulty of generating indicators and systems which would allow them to trace the impact of strategies like collective organising and consciousness raising. They also rightly pushed back against a value for money and results agenda which inadequately traces the types of change in women’s lives which women believe are important. More could be done to foster partnerships between feminist activists and progressive evaluation experts who are trialling methodologies such as process tracing and realist evaluation to strengthen this area of work.

Andrea Cornwall speaking at the conference

4. Research has failed to adequately deal with the implications of global capitalism for women’s empowerment. The global financial crisis has had a very debilitating effect on global policy spaces. At first people with a progressive slant to their politics thought that it would highlight the failure of capitalism and provide an opportunity to create a new world. But the opposite has happened and neo-patriarchialism has been enforced. Moving forward this needs to be central to research agendas.

5.Forging new alliances and intersectionality will be central to the future of feminist activism. The importance of partnering and working together with men, sexual rights activists, the creative industries, workers movements, revolutionaries and legal and religious scholars with an interest in social justice all came through strongly in the meeting. As did the idea that women have complex identities which encompass a number of interests and issues beyond women’s rights. There is a need to be strategic about these alliances and understand that there will be instances where interests do not necessarily collide. Furthermore, women’s movements need to guard against instrumentalising others in the push for women’s empowerment.

I hope that this blog gives a flavour of some of the issues that we discussed. I am relying on my co-author Jenny Edwards to add a bit of oomph to the text I have come up with. And we are planning to bring together some of the multi-media content from the meeting which will make it all the more engaging. Join the Pathways of Women’s Empowerment mailing list to get a notification of when the report and the multi-media contents go live and watch this space for details of how to learn more…

Kate Hawkins is a member of the Sexuality and Development Programme International Advisory Group and the Director of Pamoja Communications.

Read previous blog posts by Kate Hawkins


What is sexual liberation? And is it safe?

26/06/2014

Anne Philpott

We often forget that safer sex can feel good. Putting on a condom could be like squeezing into your favourite sexy boots or latex dress, ready for action. Telling your lover what you want and your desire to be safe could be foreplay. Sexual health campaigns could focus on the positives of good safe sex. Sex education could include creative masturbation techniques. After all, what’s safer than a good wank?

‘Pleasure is arguably, if not definitively, the single most powerful motivating factor for sexual behaviour.’ – World Association for Sexual Health, 2008

While it’s important to discuss distorting images of sex, consent, and abuse, society’s focus only on saying ‘no’ leaves little room to highlight how we can learn to say yes to good, safe sex. Sex that fulfils us, makes us happy, satisfies us and bonds us to others. Recognising that we can create new types of safe, pleasurable sex, in which multi-faceted desires are recognised, should give us confidence that other forms of liberation are possible.

However today models of development focus on saving victims of violence or negative consequences of sexual risk. Whilst models of sexual liberation emphasize narrow goals of individual pleasure, focusing on lithe, heterosexual, monogamous bodies galloping towards orgasm. The politics of broader sexual liberation or a broader definition of sexual health are rarely discussed.

We need a new model of safer sex promotion
Sexual pleasure remains a highly significant, if not primary, motivating factor for sexual behaviour. There is strong evidence that the pursuit of pleasure is one of the primary reasons people have sex, and that fear of disease is not a strong motivator for safer sex. In ignoring pleasure, the development community is ignoring one of its most potent tools in stopping the spread of disease. It is also stopping the broader discussion of sexuality rights, including the recognition of individual agency, especially when it comes to those most affected by HIV. Female pleasure taboo obviously plays a huge role in female genital mutilation (FGM) practices however this is rarely discussed in terms of pleasure promotion to ensure communities accept that young women have as much right to feel pleasure as young men. Instead campaigns tend to focus on ending a terrible human rights abuse, and rarely mention how women can still feel pleasure post FGM or that the key motivator for carrying out female genital cutting (FGC) is societal fear of women’s pleasure.

Safer sex campaigns have focused almost exclusively on fear-based messages to promote safer sex, to the extent that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is seen either as destructive or even as a major contributor to the spread of HIV. Pleasure can also be about power, and men and women are expected to behave in certain ways to fit in with societal expectations. In many cultures wanting sex makes you ‘too easy’ or ‘a slag’, if you are a woman. In many cultures being too lubricated is a sign of being promiscuous, resulting in a preference for dry sex, whereas for men experience is respected. Women are also burdened with needing to appear always passive or ignorant. We risk violence, death or ostracism if we ‘enjoy sex too much’ or are not virgins when we are meant to be.

So how do we transform ourselves, creating more meaningful, good, safer sex lives? Sexual liberation is not only about more sex for some people, or more orgasms, but should prioritise pleasure, consent, and respect for a wide range of sexualities, (dis)abilities and body types.

Explicit safer sex campaigns that eroticise good, safe sex have been shown to make people feel good and be safer (pdf) with their lovers. Studies comparing American and Dutch young people (pdf) showed that the Dutch sex education, which focused on mutually enjoyable, responsible sex, leads to lower rates of unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

talk dirty postcard

One of the postcards from the Pleasure Project

We at The Pleasure Project work to try and ensure that there are examples of erotic materials that are safe and that sexual health and training materials include discussions of pleasure. To this end, we wrote The Global Mapping of Pleasure to collect together examples of community groups, sex bloggers, porn film makers who are doing just that.

We profiled the Sensuousness Action Research Project (pdf) in West Bengal in India: they train gay male masseurs and clients in safe, sensual, satisfying pleasure techniques, aiming to provide economic security and life stability for the sex workers. Another project, St James Infirmary, in San Francisco, is a sex worker health service where workers are asked about what they enjoy at work in order to expand discussions of good safe sex.

We also profiled erotic safer-sex tea towels for gay men in Australia, dildo-making contests for marriage counselling nuns in Mozambique, and ‘seduction’ training modules for couples in Nigeria. Many groups work to enhance the sexual repertoire of heterosexual monogamous relationships, encouraging a less traditional view of the kind of sex you have with your marriage or long term partner. One slogan read: ‘Many positions with one, not one position with many’.

Avoid negativity – focus on desire and pleasure
All our case studies avoid sex negativity, promoting safer sex with a focus on desire and pleasure, at the same time working to reduce the shame people feel in pleasure. Most of the community groups in the mapping recognise that a focus on pleasure and safety means liberation from traditional perceptions of their sexuality and lives.

Dorothy Aken’Ova, founder of the Nigerian International Centre for Reproductive Health and Sexual Rights says:

‘People thought we were wasting time talking about sex and pleasure, when maternal mortality is so high … But I was convinced that if this delicate, taboo thing – sexual pleasure – could be negotiated by women, then almost anything can be negotiated (…and that idea gave me multiple orgasms!)’

Safer sex is promoted best through positive incentives and building communities of practise, learning from people who constantly negotiate safer sex, like sex workers, with people who are seen as the experts, like sex educators.

By opening up aspirations for safe pleasure in a wider range of relationships, or for people not traditionally expected to experience pleasure – women and people with disabilities, for example – we can unearth a much wider range of political freedoms.

Getting in touch with what we want from our sex lives might unearth much broader visions of liberation, the kind that moves beyond the individual to recognise collective visions of change.

Anne Philpott is the founder of The Pleasure Project, established in 2004 to challenge the public health approach to sexual health by highlighting the importance of pleasure and good safe sex through advocacy, training, research and general being the ‘guerrilla girls of HiV prevention’.The Pleasure  Project has a long standing partnership with the IDS Sexuality and Development programme that spans joint work on academic papers, some funding and providing joint long term advisory functions. Both the Global Mapping project and training resources were made possible with IDS funding 

This is an amended version of an article that first appeared on Open Democracy.

Read more recent blog articles about sexuality and development


Tackling gender-based violence through citizen action in Cape Town’s townships

25/06/2014

Joanna Wheeler and Thea Shahrokh

Joanna WheelerGender-based violence is both routine and extreme across South Africa. In Cape Town, cases such as the rape and murder of nine-year-old Elihle Hlanjwa  continue to highlight the seriousness of this issue in the lives of women, men and children living in the city’s townships.

Sustained activist pressure on legislative and judicial bodies shows the challenges involved in responding to the issue, with opportunities for mitigation, redress and healing limited by an ineffectual justice system. The current inquiry into policing in Khayelitsha township has been driven by residents’ deep-rooted mistrust in law enforcement institutions, which is in part, a response to the failures of the police in addressing the issue. The violence that permeates township communities is also connected to economic insecurity and marginality of the spaces where people live. This has been acknowledged to a certainThea Shahrokh extent in municipal policy, such as the city-led Violence Prevention and Urban Upgrading scheme. However, the significance of the how violence is used to enforce discriminatory social norms such as those surrounding gender, age, race, religion and ethnicity have received less attention.

A recent pilot evaluation by the Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation, the University of Western Cape and the Institute of Development Studies was undertaken to learn from citizen activists taking action against gender-based violence in Khayelitsha township. The lived experience of these activists provides an example of how community responses to violence are contributing to a sense of democratic citizenship and the transformation of inequitable relations of power, attitudes and behaviours at the local level.

Citizen-led innovations in addressing urban violence demand greater attention in policy and programming. This requires seeing those living in contexts of violence as potential active citizens, who are able to claim their rights to security and demand greater accountability, as well as act directly to mitigate violence. In this evaluation an in-depth understanding of the life choices and life chances of community activists meant that we were able to understand more about what enables people to take action against violence, within their homes, communities and cities, and importantly what sustains this activism.

Activists found value in opportunities to reflect on their own lives and relationships before trying to influence others, seeing their own life journeys and personal transformations as important catalysts of change. Activist networks were essential for engaging people across all levels of society, helping to reshape and rethink societal norms around violence. Police responsiveness and accountability on issues of gender-based violence within intimate, community and institutional spaces were seen as crucial for rebuilding trusting relationships with citizens and in catalysing wider citizen action.

‘If there was a wife calling the police saying that there is a husband beating me up then they will take their own time to come because they know the husband. Sometimes they say ‘we don’t interfere with marriage, so you just need to go to the centres, or to those organisations that deal with marriages or abusive relationships’. But now we are working with them, because we introduced them and we are wanting them to become a part of the community committee.’ (Woman, Community Activist, Khayelitsha).

Activism against violence does not exist in a vacuum. Citizen action against violence that is informed by the local context, its constraints and its possibilities will be more sustainable and will have greater impact when combined with interventions that address wider systemic issues that drive poverty and inequality. Furthermore, it is important that policies addressing violence prevention and mitigation link between local, provincial and national levels. Learning needs to take place between each level to ensure that policies are responsive to, and enabling for the grass roots activists. The National Strategic Plan to End Gender Based Violence which is currently in development provides a platform for this kind of transformative policymaking. In order to realise this vision it will be critical that the policymaking process learns from community action, and enables citizens of South Africa to have a stake in the response.

Related research on citizen action and community-led innovations against gender-based violence in South Africa

The SLF Project ‘SafeShebeens’, which seeks to reduce the risks of violence to women in public drinking venues, was recently short-listed for the OpenIDEO Amplify Challenge.

Case study research with SLF and Sonke Gender Justice has been initiated to explore how collective action contributes to addressing the discriminatory social norms that perpetuate sexual and gender-based violence, and the role of men and boys in enabling transformative change.

Thea Shahrokh is a Research Officer at the Participation, Power and Social Change team at IDS. Joanna Wheeler is a Senior Research Associate at the Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation, previously she was a Research Fellow at IDS.

Read more blogs by Thea Shahrokh and Joanna Wheeler