This week, almost 8,000 miles away, a group of almost 50 young women danced their way up the aisle of a church hall, making their lively entrance into their graduation ceremony.
Certainly there are many similarities between what I saw in my work at STSM and at Kivulini: dismissive responses by some communities about the prevalence and realities of violence, victim-blaming statements, the insistence that people abuse because they love the victim and want to “correct” ill behaviors, the false belief that men are victims just as often as women are, or the use of religion or God to defend abuse, etc.
But what I wasn’t prepared for was how the differences in social, cultural, economic, familial, and religious contexts drastically impact approaches to violence prevention and intervention.
Furthermore, in this country of almost 50 million people, where domestic violence shelters are virtually nonexistent, where there is no real evidence collection protocol for victims of rape, and where female genital mutilation is still widely practiced in some tribes, I found myself unprepared to work to make change on a macro-level. After being quite honest with myself that I just did not know enough about the culture to make sustainable and appropriate systemic change, I was compelled to work on a grass-roots level with young women themselves, to learn about their lives and the situations in which they live-the challenges and the joys-and to help them use the tools they inherently have to fight for changes in their country.
Kivulini (which in Swahili means “under the shade,” connoting the image of a safe place for women to meet) is a rights organization that educates about women’s rights in Tanzania and mobilizes communities to make change in the northwest of the country around Lake Victoria.
I had been training staff to increase their capacity to run effective programs and assisting the agency to improve their human rights campaigns.
Since Tanzania’s political and legal system is very “bottom-up” focused, Kivulini’s main approach is to educate local leaders to support victims of sexual and domestic violence.
These are the first service providers faced by victims of crime and their success or failure can be helped or hindered at this very first step.
Before moving to Tanzania, I worked as Community Education Director at Sexual Trauma Services of the Midlands (STSM), a Columbia-based rape crisis center serving four counties in South Carolina.
As Education Director, I facilitated hundreds of workshops on a variety of topics related to sexual violence and domestic abuse and developed a violence prevention program.