Its no longer scream quietly so no one can hear…

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.

What Works Inaugural Annual Scientific Meeting – Day 2

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“The more we can share our challenges, the more we can advance scientifically.” – meeting participant

Day 2 of the What Works Scientific Meeting covered a diverse range of topics including VAWG in conflict & fragile states, programming for children, working with men to prevent violence against women and girls, as well as innovative prevention interventions in Asia. It was a fascinating day. Some of the key discussion points that were raised included:

  • That we need to look at how VAWG in conflict and humanitarian crises is similar and how it is different to VAWG in non-conflict settings.
  • That we need to bring together humanitarian, VAWG and women, peace and security sectors.
  • That we need to better understand the pathways to violence including the normalization of violence across multiple settings. “Its no longer good enough to say that ‘this affects that’ we need to know why and how and under what circumstances.” – Lori Heise
  • That our work, for example with Faith Leaders, needs to focus on the disconnect between what people say is wrong and what they do. Many people report that they agree that violence is bad in the abstract sense, however their behaviours tell a different story.
  • In terms of working with men, it was noted that men and boys are a critical part of the solution but we must work as allies with existing women’s rights movements. It was also highlighted that we need to identify the vulnerabilities and differences among men. That context matters. “Change is voluntary. We need to ensure that interventions encourage men to Think Feel and Act.” – Dumisani Rebombo
  • One common message that consistently emerged from the scientific meeting was the valuable role of formative research, and of piloting interventions accompanied by research for intervention strengthening.

In terms of working with children the presentations and discussions highlighted a number of important learnings and recommendations for future work:

  • We need to address violence against children urgently, and not just physical violence but subtle experiences of emotional abuse and neglect during childhood as well.
  • We need to start intervening with children, engaging with boys and girls at a very early age, including in conflict and humanitarian settings, in schools and other settings, before gender norms are firmly established.
  • We need to bring together the child protection and VAW sectors and better determine how we can complement each other’s work.
  • We need to look at violence across the life cycle, and show that it is possible to work with both adults and children in families, and draw links across different types of violence.
  • We need to be able to show people that it is possible to work with children in complex environments.

We also learnt more about the ground-breaking interventions being funded under the What Works programme, including a programme using radio to prevent violence in couples in Nepal, an intervention to prevent violence among sex workers in India, a programme integrating violence prevention into garment factories in Bangladesh, and a programme that uses play in schools to prevent bullying and other forms of violence against children.

We heard more about research methods and emerging findings from formative research and pilots. Self-defence as a strategy for preventing VAWG has been highly controversial because it seems to put the onus on women and girls to protect themselves rather than stopping the perpetrators. Further there has been some suggestion that it puts women and girls at increased risk of violence. However, emerging findings from the Ujamaa Africa programme show very promising results. Interestingly qualitative and anecdotal evidence coming out of the programme suggest that while girls learnt physical self defence along with other empowerment strategies, in situations of attack they rarely had to resort to the physical, but were successful warding off sexual assault through other strategies such as using their voice. The rigorous trail being planned will contribute significantly to our understanding of this type of intervention because it will track potential negative outcomes and also explore how much the physical defence element is needed to prevent assault.

We learnt about the promising impact of economic empowerment programmes that are accompanied by gender transformative approaches. However, caution was noted because group based economic empowerment does not necessarily address the large structural economic problems such as high rates of youth unemployment that exist in many settings. We also learnt that change may not be as radical as we think it is theoretically – we tend to see incremental change and spaces for change rather than a radical reconstruction of masculinity and femininity.

Overall, it was wonderful to have such a diverse range of participants from so many projects together in one place. Despite the diversity what emerged were the many linkages, cross cutting issues, and opportunities for learning from each other. The 2 days highlighted how much incredible work has been accomplished in such a short period of time. It showed that What Works is well positioned to develop an incredible amount of new knowledge over the next three years, on what works and also what it costs and how we can scale up. We ended with our uplifting What Works Song led by Dumisani: “What Works wants to work, innovatively!”

We look forward to building on this knowledge in the years to come to advance the field to prevent VAWG. Thanks to all the amazing participants and partners of What Works for making the first Scientific Meeting such a success.

What Works Inaugural Annual Scientific Meeting – Day 1

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The sun was out in full for the first day of the What Works Inaugural Annual Scientific Meeting in stunning Stellenbosch, South Africa. This echoed the bright ideas and enlightening discussion shared by more than forty researchers, policy makers, and programmers on what works to prevent violence against women and girls (VAWG).

Being the first scientific meeting for programme, the day focused on sharing new learning across the three components; and discussing research methods and approaches to understanding VAWG, with a view to strengthening the science of “What Works”.

Katie Chapman from DFID opened the meeting and noted the high expectations for the innovative programme. “We are looking for the What Works programme to break new ground and further the field to prevent violence against women and girls”, she said. The welcoming session acknowledged the tremendous progress made in the last 20 years towards ending VAWG, and the important point at which we now stand – with a high degree of political will, and the inclusions of specific targets on ending VAWG in the upcoming Sustainable Development Goals. Claudia Garcia-Moreno from the World Health Organization who chaired the opening session, reiterated her excitement about the breadth and depth of the research being undertaken under the programme and its potential to build on the current momentum and significantly advance the field.

The first technical session, which included presentations from Stacey Scriver, Lori Heise, Esnat Chirwa, Kristin Dunkle and Rachel Jewkes, was on the links between structural economic, political and social factors and the prevalence of violence. Some interesting findings and ideas that arose from the presentations and discussions were:

  • That what drives the population level prevalence of VAWG may be different to what increases an individual women’s risk of experiencing violence.
  • However, the acceptability of violence is a key driver of both population prevalence and individual risk. Drawing on evidence from the RCT of SASA! (a community mobilisation intervention in Uganda), Lori Heise showed that one of the strongest pathways through which the intervention reduced violence was changing the norm around the acceptability of wife beating. The analysis suggested that community norms play a more significant mediating role than changes at the relationship and individual levels.
  • Studies to evaluate interventions should also include measures of potential pathways to reduce violence over time.
  • Individual attitudes measured through the GEM scale were better at predicting men’s perpetration than women’s experiences of violence.
  • Shorter versions of attitude scales can be as predictive and valid as longer versions and therefore make surveys more efficient.
  • Underlying constructions of violent masculinity are related to the use of violence against women. And interestingly socio-economic status and experiences of child abuse appear to shape violent masculinity and sexual entitlement.

The second session focused on assessing the economic and social costs of violence and value for money. During this session Component 3 presented on conceptualising links between structural economic, political and social factors and the prevalence of violence. They explained how they plan to use gender responsive budgeting to show the cost of inaction compared to the amount of money actually being allocated to service provision by governments. This will provide a strong argument for why governments should invest in preventing VAWG.

Andy Gibbs from HEARD discussed what forms of economic empowerment interventions are effective in preventing violence, and concluded that economic only interventions generally are not effective but adding a gender component to these interventions seems to improve them. Giulia Ferrari from LSHTM presented on costing violence prevention programmes. The discussion around this session highlighted the importance of bridging the gap between the language of researchers and the language of policy makers. Important in this is the need to think about who we are trying to influence, what motivates them, and what is the main gain. It was suggested that the most compelling story wins and therefore we need to use the evidence to create a meaningful story for policy makers.

We’re looking forward to Day 2!