Civic Stage: From the Village to the City, Women Activists Innovate to Strengthen Civic Space

I4C activists were in New York attending the yearly United Nations’ Commission for the Status of Women in March 2018.

The Innovation for Change Civic Stage team interviewed four I4c members from three regional hubs to share their stories and efforts to end gender-based violence and increase equality. The activists were in New York attending the yearly United Nations’ Commission for the Status of Women.

To capture their stories, Kara Andrade and Adi Mistry Frost hosted a live show in New York City and interviewed Thozama Dyantyi, a rights activist and social worker from Jersey Farm Advice Centre in South Africa; ElsaMarie D’Silva co-founder and CEO of Safecity, a not for profit organization creating awareness and collecting data on sexual harassment and gender violence in India; Sia Edward Ngowo, an advocate for the rights of sex workers in Tanzania and Nadia Sanchez Gomez, the founder and CEO of the She Is Foundation based in Colombia.

Gender Violence: A Global Phenomenon
For D’Silva sexual violence is a global pandemic that cuts across countries, cultures, economic levels and literacy levels in any given society. “One in three women around the world on an average experiences sexual assault at least once in their lifetime,” D’Silva said. “But when you want to look at it at a country level or city level or village level, you hardly get those statistics.” Through her organization D’Silva seeks to address this data gap by encouraging women to locally report incidences of sexual harassment, even if they do so anonymously.

For many women the socio-economic contexts in which they find themselves can make them hesitant to report abuse. Women can feel isolated, at fault and lacking in support when they are victims of gender-based violence and their communities don’t stand behind them or demand justice from perpetrators. The cycle of violence continues and women find themselves subject to predatory behavior.

In her work, Thozama Dyantyi is aware of situations where a rape victim cannot report the crime because it was committed by a family member and her family has negotiated some form of payment as compensation. These patterns of abuse are perpetuated from generation to generation. Cultural customs such as ukhutwala, where young girls are married off to older men, are still carried out even by women who were victims of this practice.

The plight of sex workers can also lead to marginalization and extortion, as is the case with Tanzania where sex work is illegal. “But still they are human. They need space. They need to be listened to,” said Sia Edward Ngowo of Connect Community with Advocacy and Empowerment Tanzania. While she has seen changes made in her country around women’s rights female sex workers are still not heard. For Ngowo sex workers are most at risk in an environment where sex corruption is rampant in the country. When a woman wants access to an opportunity or job, she has to offer sex.

Female sex workers are often taken into police custody and only released in exchange for sex. They are particularly susceptible to health risks such as transmission of HIV, are poorly educated, don’t know their rights or ways to access help. Female sex workers are also often excluded from the experiences of other women in their communities. They need their own space to engage with each other and find ways to overcome their economic and health challenges, Ngowo said.

When Thozama Dyantyi began her activist work, she conducted home visits with the aim of creating awareness on HIV/AIDS and basic human rights. These home visits offered insights into how women were treated by their families and their communities – this led her to focus on women’s rights. Women are made to carry the blame for atrocities committed against them, she said. Tailored workshops in the community can work well to address these issues. For example, reports of rape to the police have increased and families are speaking openly about rape as a serious offence.

In her work with rural women in Colombia, Nadia Sanchez Gomez agrees and reiterates the need for greater resources to be focused in the rural areas where the women do not have adequate access to education or economic opportunities. Improved economic opportunities for women could lead to a decrease in the number of cases of gender-based violence.

Activist platforms: Positives and Pitfalls
Platforms such as the United Nations’ Commission for the Status of Women provide an opportunity for women to find other spaces to be heard and tell their stories to larger audience and go beyond the local spaces where they are marginalized, unseen and unheard. In networking and building partnerships, women activists find solidarity sharing these experiences.

For this reason there is an urgent need for spaces where women can tell their own struggles. The role of civil society organizations is vital in helping to increase accountability and to share these stories beyond activist spaces.

Innovation in Civic Space
For D’Silva, the challenge was finding a universal model that could accommodate diverse groups of women and reducing the data gap surrounding sexual harassment at local and regional levels. By collecting that data and plotting it on a map, her organization could partner with law enforcement and government officials to target hotspots.

This data would be openly available, unlike government collected data which is only obtained through the request for public information. Modelled on services like Yelp! and TripAdvisor, SafeCity is a platform that allows women to make informed choices to navigate their streets. The website helps to provide them with a community to share their experiences and breakdown the barriers of shame.

Different models are required for different contexts. Dyantyi learned this when she organized workshops and found it difficult to deal with large groups of people. Instead she began to work with smaller action groups where participants felt a sense of ownership in the process. Edward Ngowo, found a simple yet effective way to evade government crackdowns on female sex workers by tapping into WhatsApp, a mobile messaging app, to share information with women about health and legal issues. This group also helped create awareness about the areas in which the police were active. The women also use the WhatsApp group to exchange ideas and opportunities for income generation.

Even though the urban and rural divide is real, the podcast guests emphasized creating long-term sustainability over immediate solutions. “Be consistent. The consistency is what builds trust and credibility over a period of time,” said D’Silva.