Women Safe Spaces: Giving Women a Voice against Gender Based Violence (GBV)
By Mary Balikungeri, Founder & Director of RWN
Rwanda is renowned globally for its progressive policies that promote women’s empowerment and denounce GBV and discrimination. Although policies that outlaw GBV are in place, several factors such as patriarchal
norms that support negative masculinity continue to hinder the successful implementation. As a result perpetrators are not adequately held accountable and women continue to bear the brunt as an estimated 56% of women are subjected to physical and sexual abuse. The establishment of women safe spaces by the Rwanda Women’s Network (RWN) is in response to this contradiction. The women safe spaces help to raise awareness, promote critical thinking on GBV and denounce it through using community centred initiatives. The initiatives include providing a safe haven for women to share and receive support on GBV issues and actively engaging men to join the fight against GBV through dialogues, home visits, parents evening forums and village meetings. The inclusion of both women and men in their program has contributed to social transformation and the continued success of the spaces.
Speaking on her experience, Eugenie Mukabaziga from Rugwiza village, Munyiginya sector in Rwamagana describes the Women Safe Space in her sector as a warm and welcoming space for women especially having experienced GBV in her marriage. The spaces are led and driven by Women Space Facilitators who are selected by other women from the villages within the sector and supported by RWN field staff. “The Women Space Facilitator reached out to me at a time when I felt helpless and had given up on myself and life in general because of the abuse I was facing,” says Eugenie. She did not consider reporting her husband to the authorities because she depended on him to support the family as the breadwinner. However, the Women Safe Space not only provided support for Eugenie, they also reached out to her husband. The Women Space Facilitators conduct dialogues with men to promote a change in mind-set and make them key partners in the fight against GBV. Eugenie’s husband has a greater understanding of the dangers of GBV through the dialogue sessions. He is also aware of the positive role he can play in his home and the community to denounce it. Eugenie attests that through the Women Safe Space there is significant transformation in both their lives including peace at home.
Different factors are believed to influence GBV such as the misinterpretation of gender roles. Some men believe that their main role is to provide for the family while caring for the children is the women’s sole responsibility and any mistakes made by the child are a failure of the mother’s upbringing. Such was the case for Beatrice Mukankuranga from Kabarondo, Kayonza another beneficiary of a women safe space. Her eldest daughter became pregnant at an early age and had to drop out of school. According to Beatrice, her daughter’s pregnancy resulted in a lot of tension in the household, especially between her and her husband as it goes against cultural norms that condemn child bearing out of wedlock. As a result her husband would physically abuse her and she would take out the frustration by verbally abusing her daughter. She says, “there was no peace in my home.” She was advised by women in her village to go to the Women Safe Space for support in dealing with her situation and eventually joined as a last resort to the escalating tension in her household.
Beatrice shares that through the space, she learnt to accept the situation as it could not be changed and work towards a better future for her daughter and grandchild. She also learnt the importance of communication and peace in the home as a way of resolving conflict. “The space not only supported me but also invited my daughter and helped both of us rebuild our relationship,” narrates Beatrice. My daughter has since given birth and is continuing to pursue her education as I help her take care of her child.” According to Beatrice, the empowerment and transformation in her attitude made her husband curious about the Women Safe Space and he started to attend outreach village meetings. The impact or the empowerment of women involved in the spaces is normally so visible that their husbands develop an interest and join the community outreach activities. Outreach village meetings have helped to actively engage the community and condemn patriarchal attitudes and cultural norms that justify violence against women and girls.
Opinion leaders are key members in society and play an influential role in accepted views and the transformation of a community. Speaking on the impact the spaces have made in the district, RWN Field Officer, Evode Habiyonizeye based in Kabarondo, Kayonza said the space outreach activities incorporate opinion leaders and community members in order to sensitize them on GBV as well as get their support in denouncing it. Subsequently there is overwhelming support from opinion leaders, a decrease in GBV issues and high awareness levels of legislation on GBV. According to Immaculate, a Women Space Facilitator at the Kayonza safe space, “extending our work to opinion leaders and community members has helped to build mutual respect and trust to the point where our facilitators are even invited to other community gatherings to speak on the dangers of GBV.”
The Women Safe Spaces therefore do not merely raise awareness on GBV, they provide a holistic approach to the various issues faced by women and as a result also create opportunities for women to learn from each other and improve their livelihoods.
GBV continues to affect women around the world with 1 in every 3 women being subjected to physical or sexual abuse. Several efforts have been made by governments, human rights groups and communities to address GBV. The RWN Women Safe Spaces initiative represents efforts by civil society organisations and the Rwanda government to provide different forms of support for women who experience GBV. The initiative also increases positive engagement with men and communities to build partnerships in the fight against GBV. Therefore the spaces do not only empower women at an individual level but also empower their families and communities. The Women Safe Spaces fulfil Rwanda’s commitment to international instruments such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) by promoting gender equality, raising awareness and promoting critical thinking in order to denounce cultural beliefs, social norms and practices that promote and justify GBV. They also compliment local efforts by the Rwandan government such as the Isange One Stop Centres that assist GBV victims with legal and health services. RWN has a total of twenty spaces in the country and continues to expand through building the capacity of women, communities and association members to stand against GBV.
Rwanda Women's Network (RWN) is one of the four partner institutes of the African Centers of Excellence (ACE) for Women's Leadership program run by the Institute of International Education (IIE) , Ethiopia Office.
For more on IIE , ACE or RWN please follow the links below.