You are on page 1of 6

global I REPORTS

Thinking Outside the Gender Box


Through tea and podcasts, Somali refugees combat gender
norms and intimate partner violence
HE FOUR WOMEN SIT AROUND A TABLE LISTENING INTENTLY, HEADPHONES

T positioned carefully over their colorful hijabs. For a few of them, it’s the first time
they’ve used headphones to listen to anything. All four fled Somalia only to end up in a
refugee camp across the border in Ethiopia, where they are now learning how to end
intimate partner violence and have healthy relationships through podcasts created by
other refugees in the camp.
The podcasts are part of Unite for a Better Life, an innovative program working to
stem intimate partner violence in humanitarian camps. Two researchers from Harvard
UN PHOTO/ESKINDER DEBEBE; DR. VANDANA SHARMA; KRISTI EATON

University, in conjunction with partners such as Women and Health Alliance Ethiopia
and Fondation Hirondelle, developed the program—a series of 16 podcast episodes fea-
turing the characters Abdi and Fawzia. The couple navigate situations like women
working outside the home and the chewing of khat, a harmful stimulant used in the
Horn of Africa. The podcasts honor the Somali tradition of oral storytelling, and there’s
a portion in each episode when participants break for tea—an important part of Somali
culture—to reflect on lessons learned.
“What’s unique about this project is its participatory, human-centered approach that
actually empowers individuals to create solutions that improve their own lives and com-

14 | SPRING 2020 www.feminist.org


highlights
India Protests 16
Glitter Revolution 17

At a Somali camp in Ethiopia (far left) nary data from the study shows a lot Unite for a Better Life’s in-person
refugees record, edit and act in narrative of promise. Roughly 200 households sessions about intimate partner vio-
podcasts about domestic violence, healthy took part. lence, which were implemented in the
relationships and gender equality. “Most of those who participated in same camp in 2018. That project used
the program reported that they had tea to foster discussion around part-
munities,” says Dr. Vandana Sharma. changed their behavior as a result of ner violence, joint decision making,
One of the creators of the program, what they had learned—close to 90 healthy sexuality and gender norms.
Sharma is a global public health re- percent, both men and women,” Amina took part in those earlier,
searcher at Harvard and an expert in Sharma says. “They reported in-person sessions. She says that af-
impact evaluation. changes in how they communicate ter learning about gender roles
Eight women and men from the with their partners, solving conflict through the program, her relation-
camp received digital storytelling in a healthy way.” She adds that ship with her partner improved. Be-
training before recording the pod- many participants shared their new fore, they had been living “inside the
casts in a makeshift studio, using mat- knowledge with others in the camp gender box,” she says in a nod to the
tresses to soundproof their work- who did not participate in the pro- curriculum, which emphasizes how
space. They also recorded content in gram. To Sharma, this suggests the gender-role adherence can keep peo-
the camp and edited each episode program could potentially create a ple in restricted lives.
together. ripple effect, leading to changes be- Other couples were also impacted.
“I was fearful [about the camp’s re- yond direct participants. Abdullali participated in the in-
action] at first,” admits Hodan, a sen- Producing a podcast series in such a person program with his wife. Previ-
ior podcaster. “But I adapted.” The stark locale was not without obstacles. ously, he had not allowed her to be
20-year-old, who is using only her One was sheer logistics. Getting the employed or to share in the family
first name for safety reasons, adds, “If necessary approvals to bring equip- decision making. But after, with
you educate a man, you educate an ment to the camp was difficult, as was Abdullali’s support, his wife opened a
individual. If you educate a woman, the daily commute that research man- restaurant—she now serves tea and
you educate a family.” ager Theodros Woldegiorgis had to food to other community members in
As part of the program’s pilot test- undertake, through flooded road- the camp.
ing in November and December ways with deep pockets of mud and a “I used to make the decisions,” he
2019, a team of refugees fanned out variety of wildlife settled in the mid- says, “but now we make decisions to-
to collect data from others living at dle of the road. gether.” While his wife is working at
the camp, one of five along the bor- The World Bank Group and the her restaurant, he handles household
der in Ethiopia, together housing Sexual Violence Research Initiative, duties—fetching water, cutting fire-
more than 212,000 Somali refugees. together with the Swiss Cooperation wood and caring for their seven chil-
Community members were then in- Office, funded the pilot project. dren, ages 1 to 11. He brings the baby
vited to take part in group or individ- Sharma and her colleague, Dr. to the restaurant several times a day
ual sessions, listening to the episodes Jennifer Scott, an assistant professor so she can breastfeed.
at centers set up in the camp. at Harvard Medical School and a He says he’s sometimes mocked for
Typically, programs involving inti- physician researcher focusing on doing what some perceive as women’s
mate partner violence require in- gender-based violence in humanitar- work, but he doesn’t worry about it.
person sessions, Sharma notes, but in ian crises, hope to expand the pro- “Before, I believed it was only the
humanitarian settings with mobile gram with additional funding. Dr. husband who has the power to work,”
populations, a lengthy in-person in- Negussie Deyessa, an associate pro- he confesses.
tervention may not be possible. fessor at the Addis Ababa University For such couples, Unite for a Bet-
REUTERS/MARIANA GREIF

“[This tool] could actually have a School of Public Health, works with ter Life has lived up to its name.
much farther reach,” Sharma says, “as Sharma and Scott. He says he’s “ea- —KRISTI EATON

people could download the podcasts ger to see the [project] findings …
and share them person-to-person, so and consider scaling it up in similar This report was researched with support
in this context, we could reach many populations in the world.” from the Tulsa Artist Fellowship, created
people very quickly.” In fact, prelimi- The podcast series expands on by the George Kaiser Family Foundation.

www.msmagazine.com SPRING 2020 | 15


global I REPORTS

‘Shoot Me or Beat Me—


I Won’t Get Up’
In India, sit-ins led by Muslim women have become the strongest resistance
mounted against the country’s discriminatory citizenship law
IGHTY-TWO-YEAR-OLD BILKIS then erupted across the country, met factional politics and sang Mahatma

E was sitting counting prayer


beads when a man opened fire
into a crowd of protesters. His tar-
in some places with police brutality
and attacks from right-wing extrem-
ists. Modi’s government inspires
Gandhi’s songs on the anniversary of
his assassination. In other parts of the
nation, Muslim women were joined
gets were students at a university, but these actions: The man who fired on by women who are Hindus, Sikhs,
he later revealed that he had been protesters in Delhi did so two days af- Christians and other religious minori-
headed for nearby Shaheen Bagh, the ter a government minister publicly ties. The protest sites became spaces
Delhi neighborhood where Bilkis sat called for shooting “traitors,” a word for multifaith prayers and posters. On
on a road with hundreds of other now applied to any dissenters. the 30th day of the Shaheen Bagh
Muslim women. It was the 47th day But few imagined that a group of hi- protest, Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims
of their protest. Despite the close jabi women—full-time homemakers, offered prayers at the same time.
call, Bilkis is undeterred. “Shoot me employed mothers, grandmothers and Many women are protesting for
or beat me,” she says. “I won’t get up religiously conservative women— their children’s sake. “There is a toxic
until the law is rolled back.” would emerge from their homes air around us. I don’t want to leave
The law is the Citizen Amendment wrapped in shawls and blankets in the that behind for my children,” says
Bill, approved in December by India’s coldest December in a century and protester Farhat Faheem. Mean-
Parliament. It fast-tracks citizenship wage a sit-in that would become the while, the men involved in the largely
for religious minorities: Hindus, strongest resistance mounted against leaderless protest have taken to ar-
Sikhs, Buddhists, Jain, Parsi and Modi’s hard-line politics. On some ranging meals, organizing logistics or
Christians—but not Muslims. At the nights, the temperature dipped to 2.4 simply standing around the women to
same time, Prime Minister Narendra degrees Celsius (36 degrees Fahren- watch. A group of volunteers con-
Modi’s home minister, Amit Shah, heit). It rained and the raw cold made verted a nearby bus stop into a li-
shared his plan to build a nationwide it barely tolerable to stay outdoors. brary, with books on the Indian
registry to identify undocumented But the women kept sitting. Constitution, feminism and minority
immigrants. If the exercise is conduct- Though Muslim, these women ex- rights. They named it after the 19th-
ed, millions of Muslims—and the pressed solidarity with Kashmiri century feminists and educationists
poor, who lack papers—will lose their Hindus displaced from their home- Savitribai Phule and Fatima Sheikh.
rights and be deemed illegal migrants. land due to Islamic violence. They After police stormed a Delhi cam-
Protests began at universities and held placards against religious- pus and severely beat protesting stu-
dents, a video surfaced on social media
showing three hijabi women acting as
human shields over an injured male
friend, while another woman con-
fronts club-wielding police. That im-
age is now everywhere on placards: a
symbol of women-led resistance.
“Muslim women have finally come
into their own,” writes Syeda
Hameed, founder and chair of the
BURHAAN KINU/GETTY IMAGES

Muslim Women’s Forum. Reaching


across religious, class and caste barri-
ers, Indian women are joining in un-
precedented ways—to lead.
—ROMITA SALUJA

3Protest by Muslim women in New Delhi

www.feminist.org
Protesters coated Jesús Orta Martínez (left), Mexico City’s security minister, in pink glitter after the alleged rape of a teen girl by four
police officers; “They Don’t Protect Me; They Rape Me” was the rallying cry in the capital (right) and across the country.

The Pink Glitter Revolution


In Mexico City, activists protesting gender-based violence deploy a crafty new tactic
cials. Online outrage spilled over into Mexico’s 32 states, but its effective-

I
T’S TRAGICALLY OLD NEWS
that high rates of violence against demonstrations across the country. ness has been hampered by political
women persist in many Latin Feminist graffiti and glitter appeared inertia. For example, activists in Mex-
American countries. So when all over the historic center of Mexico ico City first petitioned the govern-
Claudia Sheinbaum, the first woman City, including on the iconic Ángel de ment for its activation in 2017 but
elected mayor of Mexico City, took la Independencia monument to Mex- were denied.
office in 2018 pledging to combat ican independence. Women marched In August, the Mexico City attor-
gender-based violence in the capital, through the streets. Some protesters ney general’s office announced that
women hoped for real action. By lit fires and damaged a public trans- the alleged perpetrator had been ar-
August 2019, though, Sheinbaum port station and a police station. A rested for the rape of the 16-year-old.
had a revolution on her hands, as photo of Jesús Orta Martínez, Mexico No arrest was made for the rape of the
hundreds of Mexican women took to City’s security minister, covered in 17-year-old. The teen had declined to
the streets armed with pink glitter to pink glitter thrown by the crowd, be- identify her attackers after her person-
hold her to her promise. came a symbol of the movement. The al details were leaked to the local press
The protests were sparked by the protesters’ public statement pro- and her family feared retribution.
alleged rape of a 17-year-old girl by claims: “Our fear and our being fed In September, a judge ordered
four police officers in early August up is nothing new. All the women of Mexico City to activate the gendered
and continued through the rest of this city live in constant insecurity, violence alert. But the women’s anger
2019. This alleged rape—and that of and the police forces and the military continued, unabated and unappeased.
ALFREDO ESTRELLA/GETTY IMAGES; REUTERS/MARIANA GREIF

a 16-year-old girl by another police inspire the same terror in us as organ- In November in the city’s central
officer five days later—was a tipping ised crime does.” square, in a show of regional solidari-
point for a city already plagued by Protesters’ demands were clearly ty, thousands of women joined to-
gendered violence. Nationwide, vio- stated: legal prosecution of those who gether to perform the Chilean
lence had reached its highest-ever commit sexual crimes (especially po- women’s chant “Un Violador en Tu
recorded level, bringing with it an in- lice and military); implementation of Camino” (A Rapist in Your Path).
tensified wave of femicides: Varying effective government policies to pro- After initially dismissing the
reports say as many as 10 women are tect women; and activation of a protests as a “provocation,” Mayor
killed per day in Mexico. unique federal tool known as the gen- Sheinbaum met with activists and
Faced with bureaucratic inaction, dered violence against women alert. promised new measures to combat
Mexican women began to use the so- Established in 2007, the alert, when both physical and virtual sex crimes.
cial media hashtag #NoMeCuidan activated, requires the state govern- For women in Mexico, this is only a
MeViolan (They Don’t Protect Me; ment to provide additional data and small step toward building a govern-
They Rape Me) to highlight their dis- resources to confront gendered vio- ment that takes their safety seriously.
trust of police and government offi- lence. It is currently active in 18 of —MOLLY MCLAUGHLIN

www.msmagazine.com SPRING 2020 | 17


global I SHORT TAKES

Out of the 193 members of the United Nations, not a sin- try. Irene Montero, a member of the progressive Unidas
gle nation has achieved gender equality. That’s the con- Podemos (United We Can) party, said the proposed bill
clusion of a study released by the U.N. in March. The will make Spain “a safer country for women.”
study examined rates of women in leadership roles and
found that just 25 percent of seats in national parliaments SCOTLAND
and managerial roles are held by women. “Equality isn’t The Parliament advanced legislation in February that
just one-quarter of the seats at the tables of power,” would make pads and tampons free of charge. If passed,
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of UN the Period Products (Free Provision) Scotland Bill will
Women, said. “Only half is an equal share, and only equal make Scotland the first country to provide universal
is enough.” The study—conducted 25 years after the access to menstrual products free of charge. The bill
Beijing Platform for Action designated 12 key areas where passed almost unanimously, with 112 votes in favor, one
critical action was needed to ensure greater gender abstention and no opposing votes. In the U.K., one in 10
equality—did note some bright spots, though. It found girls have reported being unable to afford menstrual
that more women and girls are in school than ever before, products, and in the U.S., it’s one in five. The legislation’s
and the global maternal mortality ratio, while still too sponsor, Monica Lennon, called the law’s passage a “mile-
high, decreased by 38 percent between 2000 and 2017. stone moment for normalizing menstruation in Scotland
and sending out that real signal to people in this country
CHINA about how seriously Parliament takes gender equality.”
During the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent quar- The bill is now headed to an amendment phase after
antine across large portions of the country, Chinese which it will come up for a final vote.
activists observed a dramatic increase in instances of
domestic violence. “The epidemic has had a huge impact NEW ZEALAND
on domestic violence,” Wan Fei, a former police officer When Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern campaigned for
and founder of an anti-domestic violence nonprofit in office in 2017, she vowed to update the country’s abortion
Hubei Province, told the news site Sixth Tone. laws, which since 1977 have required women seeking an
“According to our statistics, 90 percent of the causes of abortion to convince their doctors that continuing the
violence are related to the COVID-19 epidemic”—such pregnancy would put their life or mental health in jeop-
as fear and anxiety related to the epidemic and its eco- ardy. In March, lawmakers finally voted to decriminalize
nomic impacts. One police station close to Wan’s home abortion, which will now be an option for all women
reported three times the number of domestic violence through the 20th week of pregnancy, and with a health
calls in February compared to the previous year. Although provider’s approval after 20 weeks. “It’s fantastic
the country passed its first law on domestic violence in Parliament has addressed something that they should
2016, it has not been strictly enforced. Activists blame the have addressed 40 years ago,” Jackie Edmond, chief exec-
Communist Party’s emphasis on social and political stabil- utive of Family Planning (which has reproductive health
ity, which preserves traditional gender roles in the home. clinics throughout the country), told the Associated Press.
C O L O M B I A also was poised to legalize abortion, but
SPAIN legislators rejected a bill that would have allowed for abor-
Proposed in March, a new Spanish law—“Only Yes tion through the first 16 weeks of pregnancy. As the law
Means Yes”—defines rape as sex without consent, remov- currently stands, abortion in Colombia is a crime except
ing the requirement for survivors to prove violence or in the case of rape or fetal malformation, or if the preg-
intimidation. If passed, the bill would increase support for nant woman’s life is at risk.
victims of rape and assault and strengthen the power of
the courts to convict those accused of such crimes. Public SOUTH KOREA
pressure to amend the law came after the alleged gang On International Women’s Day, the country made history
rape of a teenage girl in 2016. Even though the five men with the establishment of its first-ever feminist political
who allegedly raped her filmed the act, they were found party, The Women’s Party. Among the party’s priorities is
guilty only of the lesser charge of sexual abuse, because closing South Korea’s economic gender gap, which, at 34
the survivor could not prove she had objected to the rape. percent, is the highest among the 36 member countries in
The decision sparked mass protests throughout the coun- the Organization for Economic Cooperation and

18 | SPRING 2020 www.feminist.org


On International Women’s Day, protesters across Latin America, including in
Mexico City (above), demanded government action on violence against women.

Development. Kim Eun-ju, a longtime women’s rights activist and party


cofounder, says The Women’s Party is also aimed at combating gender-based
violence and discrimination. “Women’s (issues) have been marginalized by
other parties and we want to put them at the forefront,” she told Reuters.

LATIN AMERICA
In M E X I C O , femicides have risen 137 percent in the past five years. On
International Women’s Day, women in cities around Mexico took to the
streets to express their outrage. And the following day, thousands of women
across the country stayed home as part of a historic 24-hour strike. Called “Un
Día Sin Nosotras” (“A Day Without Us”), the strike protested the startling
rates of gender-based violence and femicide in the country, and what protes-
tors perceive as inaction on behalf of their government (see Page 17).
Similar strikes and rallies took place in C H I L E and A R G E N T I N A , where
LUIS ANTONIO ROJAS/THE NEW YORK TIMES

feminists staged mass demonstrations on International Women’s Day in


protest of gender-based violence and in support of abortion legalization, and
stayed home from work and school the following Monday. “We are, as always,
overflowing the streets of all the cities of this country,” said Andrea Conde, a
member of the Argentine feminist organization Avanza. “And this women’s
revolution does not only occur in Argentina, but it occurs everywhere in [the]
world, and that’s why it has the power it has.”
—ROXANNE SZAL

To read more in-depth coverage of these stories, head to msmagazine.com/ShortTakes.

www.msmagazine.com SPRING 2020 | 19