Opening the doors to the day on the Spier Estate in Stellenbosch South Africa, the day overcast with mist hanging low over the vast expanse of green fertile land, a beautiful country with a ravaged past and today marks day one of the fourth SVRI Forum.
This is a gathering of celebrities, but not the celebrities we know that sit amongst the guilty gossip columns, these are people worthy of true celebration – the world’s leading experts in violence prevention meeting to share innovative ideas about how to end gender violence – the largest conference on violence against women and girls in the Global South.
We know that violence against women and girls is one of the greatest social, economic and public health problems facing the world today. In response, the Sexual Violence Research Initiative (SVRI) was set up, to promote good quality research in the area of sexual violence, with a particular focus on the Global South. The forum brings together researchers, gender activists, funders, policy makers, service providers, practitioners and survivors from all over the world to showcase innovative practices to end sexual violence, intimate partner violence and child abuse, and strengthen responses to survivors in low and middle income countries – its ultimate purpose to understand what is working and why, with a view to scaling up those successes. The growth of the Forum over the years illustrates the increased value placed on research and evidence-informed programming – a biennial pilgrimage for those working in the field.
And our DFID funded flagship programme sits proudly amongst the meeting… as it begins its five-year journey across Africa, Asia and the Middle East, to find out what is working to prevent violence.
The bell rang, our call to gather for the opening plenary and we were welcomed by Claudia Garcia-Moreno, SVRI Forum 2015 Chair and lead specialist Gender, Reproductive Rights, Sexual Health and Adolescence at the World Health Organization, and our esteemed Chair of the What Works Independent Advisory Committee. Claudia invited Dr Rashida Manjoo to the stage, the former UN Special rapporteur on violence against women, who unpicked with a grace and certain clarity the role she has carried out across the last six years.
“My mandate – to seek and receive information from as far as possible and from as many people as possible,” said Dr Manjoo. “Our role is one of investigation and highlighting for the UN the complex realities of what is happening on the ground. And for those countries I visit who fail to protect women from violence, we remind those governments of their international obligations to protect and prevent.”
“The discourse is that violence against women and girls is the most pervasive human rights violation that we face today”, she continued. “And whilst there is that acknowledgement of this fact the rhetoric does not translate to change…. The state has a dual responsibility, one, to the individual that has been harmed and two, to provide a holistic and sustained model of protection and prevention so it does not happen again.”
Dr Manjoo’s inspiring speech as the Forum began ended with a powerful reminder and encouragement for the work we do, that despite these stark stats, there have been significant milestones in the work to prevent VAWG, and that it is no longer scream quietly or the neighbours will hear.
Writer-academic-activist on sexuality in the Arab region Shereen El Feki was next on stage, recently famed for her book Sex and the Citadel, as the UK’s Guardian said, it is a brave book about sexual rights in Arab society. Shereen was the former vice-chair of the UN’s Global Commission on HIV and the Law and with great passion and flair reminded us that what happens inside the bedroom greatly affects what happens outside. “Sex is my lens”, said Shereen, “and I began working in this field through HIV. It is the taboos around sexuality, which are a major driver of the epidemic… We need to talk about women’s sexuality to be able to address sexual violence.”
Noura BIttar Soborg, a young Syrian refugee and social entrepreneur, shared the platform with Shereen. “It was March 2011 when the war began… and people were forced to leave. Half of the refugees affected by the war are women and children. They leave without their husbands and carry fear for luggage. Violence is rife but it is so hard to report rape in Syria.”
“If you are not aware of violence you are simply violently unaware,” and they left the stage. Plenary closed and the sessions began, over 40 spread across two days. My first took me to Rachel Jewkes, Director of our programme, Director of the South African Medical Research Council’s Gender and Health Research Unit and Secretary of the Sexual Violence Research Initiative. Rachel’s group session was about perpetration, understanding causation through modeling factors associated with prevalent and incident causes and pathways.
A straightforward question led the session… We have to prevent perpetration but what do we need to do to prevent it? Rachel led us through a series of scenarios via the structural equation model. The model dispelled the myth that it is just the poor and disadvantaged that rape, both wealthy and disadvantaged rape. So what are the underlying causes? It is not that simple, but each cause is born out of a gender inequitable attitude… so to prevent rape, we need to change gender inequitable attitudes.
The rest of the session was equally brilliant, we heard from Xian Warner who unveiled the challenges of collecting data in post-conflict settings, we heard from Martha Scherzer on narrative interventions to shift Mozambican masculinities, and from Simukai Shamu on prevalence and risk factors for intimate partner violence among Grade Eight learners in urban South Africa.
The session ended and its still only morning. We are shouting loudly so everyone can hear.