Living in Westlands, Nairobi, my neighborhood is filled with expats and fancy malls. However, on June 24, 2010 I boarded my first matatu (a 14 passenger van that is the common form of public transportation around here) and met Anne, the SGBV Training Coordinator, to go to Kariobangi, a large slum about an hour away where many Ethiopian refugees currently reside. Once we arrived, I followed Anne through a short maze of small tin houses and shops, past men building wooden furniture and selling candies & phone cards.
We entered a meeting hall with two windows and no lights, so we left the door open in order to see. There, we waited. Anne informed me that she had scheduled a Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV) training for 8:30 am, which meant that the women in the community would not be getting there until around 9:30 am. This is because the women who would be joining us that morning have several children and several mouths to feed, with barely any means to provide for them. Even if they got up at dawn to do all of the household chores, clean the house, and find and prepare food for their children, it would be extremely difficult for them to all find a way to be at the same place at the same time.
Slowly, women started to trickle into the meeting hall until the room was packed with around thirty Oromo Ethiopian refugee women. They all shook my hand and said “Habari” (How are you?) but Anne explained to me that many of the women actually speak Oromo or Amharic, the national and native languages of Ethiopia, so Anne would be giving the training in Swahili and a few of the women would be translating for the rest of them.
Anne started the training by asking the women if they knew the meaning of Sexual and Gender Based Violence. At first it was difficult because there is no direct translation for “gender” in Oromo or Amharic, but once Anne explained it the answers came pouring out: rape, sexual abuse, domestic violence. Anne then went on to explain that there were several different types of violence that the women may not even think of as SGBV. For example, she asked the women if they had ever heard of marital rape. She informed them that when a husband forces his wife to have intercourse, even when she is feeling very sick, it could be considered a form of sexual violence. When the women first heard this they were a little taken aback, because they said that many people in their community consider it to be the wife’s duty to always say “yes” to her husband, no matter the circumstance. However, one woman talked about how every night she hears her neighbor crying because her husband forces himself upon her. As the conversation progressed, all of the women began to recognize that sexual violence comes in many different forms.
Anne asked the women what they do when they hear about, see, or experience such forms of violence. Most of the women shrugged their shoulders. Several participants said that they know they are supposed to go to the hospital to get tested and treated, but the hospital costs too much money and is too far away. Anne said she gets this response a lot. “Most people do not know that there are free medical services available and that hospitals do not charge for testing or treatment related to SGBV. They know they are supposed to go to a hospital but they do not know what kinds of help they can actually get.” Therefore, Anne handed out brochures in Swahili, Oromo, and Amharic with a list of all of the places they could go to along with the services that each place provides. This was the key to Anne’s training. When the women were asked about the most important thing they learned that day, virtually every person said it was where to go, what to do, and who to call in the case of SGBV.
Another thing they learned was the importance of not keeping quiet when they or another member of their community experiences SGBV. While it may be difficult for one woman to stand up against her husband or another man, the women who were meeting that morning could collectively protect each other by not letting any incidence of SGBV go unnoticed and by helping other members of their community get help. They would be the eyes, ears, and support for each other, not only to protect themselves but women in the future from ever becoming victims.
Empowering women to prevent themselves from SGBV is not as clear cut as knowing to speak up and seek help, however. One of the women brought up an important issue to all of them: the tension between having to provide for your family and needing to protect yourself from violence. She said a common place women have been threatened with SGBV is when they are looking for jobs. Often, getting a job means having to offer your body along with the work you had originally signed up to do. In addition, since many of the women do not speak fluent Swahili or English, they find it difficult to stand up for themselves against sexual exploitation in the workforce. Anne once again brought up the power of community. “Look outside,” she said, “you see the men selling candies and making chapatis on the corner? You could do something like that!” She said that she understood how easy it is to feel defeated and overburdened by just trying to survive, but she has seen women come together in the past and she knows it can happen with these women as well.
After the training, every woman stayed after to speak with Anne in private about their own personal experiences. I was shocked to hear from Anne that most of the women approached her because they had been victims of gender based violence themselves. Even though we had stayed for two hours longer than we were supposed to, Anne listened to each one patiently, gave referrals for counseling, and promised to follow up with the most difficult cases. On the bus ride back, I marveled at Anne’s patience and devotion to her work, but it wasn’t until I looked at the photos I had taken that morning that I noticed how her face lights up when she is giving her trainings. I think this is partly because she is so good at what she does, but mostly I think it is because she knows that these trainings are giving women necessary tools to protect themselves and their community from one of the most common – and most atrocious – forms of violence that both women and men, and particularly refugees, experience today.