Violence against women is a huge problem affecting millions of women and girls worldwide. It is a particularly pressing issue in post-conflict countries such as Sierra Leone and Somaliland where communities have been desensitised to the damaging effects of inequality. Violence against women refers to any sexual or gender-based violence including domestic abuse, rape and harmful practices such as female genital mutilation (FGM).
In Somaliland, after recurrent civil conflict, rape remains part of daily life in many rural and urban settlements. Both Somaliland and Sierra Leone are highly patriarchal societies, and strong cultural beliefs have led to gender inequalities being common. For example, 63% of women and 45% of men in Northern Sierra Leone feel that it is acceptable for a man to beat his wife if she argues with him. These inequalities have led to a lack of respect for women and girls in the communities and allowed for violence against women to prevail.
There is a lack of women’s and girls’ awareness and understanding of sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR) which, along with lack of community involvement, leadership skills and experience, limits women’s ability to articulate their concerns to authorities. Health Poverty Action works to enhance women’s and girls’ knowledge of their rights to improve demand for and access to sexual and reproductive health services.
Health Poverty Action champions a multi-sectoral approach to help those affected by violence. We combine public education and awareness raising strategies with supporting local authorities to respond to demands for quality sexual, reproductive and legal services. Health Poverty Action provides a holistic approach to tackling violence against women which ensures that women seeking refuge are supported in income-generating activities, for example, and that the projects we implement are able to continue developing long after the projects close.
Our projects work to:
- Support women affected by violence by addressing their medical, psychosocial, legal and social needs.
- Increase services and structures within communities for future victims. Health Poverty Action works to sensitise communities to the issue of violence by involving key community members such as religious leaders, Community Welfare Committees and teachers and training them to take action if an incident arises. Since the implementation of our projects in Sierra Leone and Somaliland we have seen an increase in timely referrals to the police and a hospital.
- Raise awareness of human rights and the effects of violence against women. Radio is very widely used, even in many remote communities, and we use radio programmes to address cultural taboos such as FGM. Rather than treat all men as perpetrators we highlight positive male role models. Violence against women is alarmingly common amongst young people so Health Poverty Action makes sure it enters into direct dialogue with these groups as well as with adults, for example by victims of violence giving talks at school and community events.
- Increase levels of female activity in public life and enhance their roles in the community.
We support women who have been affected by violence in four key ways:
- Medically: Health workers and facilities are mainly concentrated in urban city centres, leaving vast areas with minimal or no access to basic sexual health services; the ones that exist are mostly old, run-down and understaffed. Health Poverty Action is training health workers and ensuring health facilities are equipped to deal with cases of violence against women in an effective and sensitive way.
- Psychosocially: We address the psychological effects of violence on its victims by training counsellors and mediators for victims to talk to and to help victims reintegrate with their families.
- Legally: In societies such as Somaliland and Sierra Leone where rape is taboo and associated with shame for the victims, justice is rarely brought. In Sierra Leone in 2009, for example, fewer than 20 perpetrators were convicted. This is largely due to ignorance of the laws by judges and means that cases are usually dealt with by traditional means, with the attacker paying compensation to the victim’s father or husband, while the victim is sent away from home without any support. Health Poverty Action is working to strengthen legal bodies and enable women to find legal justice by training officials such as police officers to develop their understanding of the legal framework, their role in upholding it and the services available to victims. We are also encouraging coordination between the different sectors of law enforcement, such as between the police and the courts, to ensure the cases are dealt with effectively. Health Poverty Action has succeeded in improving and increasing access to justice for survivors since we started working in Somaliland and Sierra Leone. This is illustrated through the increase in reported cases of violence against women from an average of 2 per month to an average of 10 per month.
- Socially: Health Poverty Action is working to reintegrate women into societies which so commonly reject and exclude victims of violence. We have created ‘safe homes’ where women can seek solace, shelter and support from trained staff and we have schemes with a view to getting women back into work and their normal lives.
Health Poverty Action believes that violence against women should not define its victims, nor should it shape the rest of their lives. We continue to develop and implement programmes to tackle the effects of this devastatingly prominent issue and reduce the number of people affected by it.