Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Raising Local Voices

A large portion of the work I do relates to the nexus of violence against women and violence against children and HIV/AIDS. Sometimes this connection seems fairly obvious, especially when we’re talking about rape. Sometimes it’s less obvious, like the case of physical or emotional abuse, but there are still important links (if you want to know more check out our Zero Tolerance report, linked below). In the US, if a woman goes to a doctor with bruises, broken bones, signs of violent sex, doctors will often ask questions to figure out whether she is being abused by someone. This oversight is even more pronounced with children, whose teachers are often the first to intervene in cases of child abuse, because they have been taught to recognize the warning signs. Of course, many many cases of abuse go unnoticed or are consciously ignored—even in the US we often think of abuse as a private matter. But it isn’t. It is a human rights and public health crisis, and it happens all over the world.

There are a lot of links between violence, especially sexual violence, and sexual and reproductive health (SRH). We often have to make this argument, but here in Rwanda, with this country’s history of violent rape associated with the genocide, and the serious sexual and reproductive health consequences of it, the links between violence and SRH are actually policy. And in fact, a major reason I’m here supporting Rwanda’s Round 7 Global Fund proposal is that the country wishes to expand services to prevent and respond to violence against women and violence against children as part of its national HIV/AIDS efforts.

While I’m here I’m trying to gather information about how things work here, the types of services that exist and are successful, how much they cost, etc. So today I visited the Rwanda Women’s Network, which receives support from one of our close partners, American Jewish World Service. I spent a few hours talking to Mary Balikungeri, the founder and director of Rwanda Women’s Network, which runs the Polyclinic of Hope and the Village of Hope. These programs are innovative and exciting, and Mary’s enthusiasm for her work was absolutely contagious. The Polyclinic provides services for women and children who have experienced sexual violence—human rights awareness programs, trainings on legal procedures and support for the legal process for those who decide to file charges, basic health care and HIV/AIDS services, and socio-economic empowerment. I’m trying to apply this model as I write the SRH and HIV prevention components of the Global Fund proposal, and I learned so much today about the importance of empowering local communities to advocate for their own needs and to support one another when violence takes place around them.

At one point, Mary talked about how fundamental it is to consider Rwanda’s history (the genocide of course) in trying to plan programs that focus on letting Rwandans live together in peace. She said that she wonders if the genocide ever would have happened if communities, especially the women in them, had been empowered then as many are becoming now. She said that if Rwandans don’t want to go back to that point, they must focus on raising the voices of the Rwandan people starting from the most local level. I truly hope that the Global Fund will see that the voices of individual women and children who have experienced horrible violence must be raised, and that the best way to do that is for the Rwandan authorities to provide financial support to community leaders and community-based grassroots organizations so that they can articulate their own needs and desires. I am glad that Rwanda Women’s Network has been doing just that, and I (and Mary too!) am grateful for American Jewish World Service’s support of such an outstanding organization!

With this in mind, I’m now off to continue costing the HIV prevention activities we have proposed for Round 7. Those of you who know me are aware that math is not my favorite thing. Yet, when so many lives potentially hang in the balance, I will muster the aptitude and strength to do math all night long!

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