"Thou shalt not be a victim, thou shalt not be a perpetrator, but, above all, thou shalt not be a bystander."
Veronica, from Kenya, powerfully shares her experience at the United Nations of working on the Voices against Violence curriculum in her community.
"My name is Veronica Shiroya and I am an African woman, proudly so. Today I am here to represent the voices of 10 million girls and young women...more specifically I am here to speak on behalf of young women and girls, who feel trapped in an unending cycle of spite, pain and anger against them. I am here to raise my voice against violence.
In Kenya, 45% of girls and women between ages 15 – 49 have experienced either physical or sexual violence. Closer home, I was raised in a region that at over 50% accounts for the highest cases of violence against women and girls in Kenya. This is based on reported data. Many such stories remain untold and unaccounted for.
Only 6% of cases of violence against women and girls are linked to strangers - a fact that points to just how familiar the perpetrators are to the victims. They roam free on the streets, in classrooms, in places of worship, in homes, in esteemed leadership roles...they roam free everywhere. The majority of these occur in closed spaces and the causes are deeply rooted in the cycle of poverty, and in a culture that's embedded with stereotypes and biases against women and girls. "Sometimes it feels like a curse to be born female here", said one woman at a social gathering I attended in my hometown of Kisumu to celebrate the International Women's Day in March 2013.
In the words of Yehuda Bauer: "Thou shalt not be a victim, thou shalt not be a perpetrator, but, above all, thou shalt not be a bystander."
I realized that even though I had neither been a direct victim nor a perpetrator, I would not continue to be a bystander. I was challenged by how accustomed I had become to hearing about violence against women and girls in my community and not knowing what steps to take. For example, in my community, how industrious a woman is in the kitchen determines her worthiness as a good wife. Growing up, it was a common occurrence in my area to witness women who had been beaten by their spouses and sent back to their mothers for reasons such as ‘’too much salt or too much oil in the food”. This subconsciously affected my own outlook of what would be expected of me as a future wife or mother. I knew that all around me was faltering and my silence would only result in more familiar victims and who knows, I would have eventually been one myself.
Indeed this thought process of understanding how gender inequality lies firmly at the base of violence pyramid gave me a reason to fight against the vice. Armed with the principles and virtues of a Girl Guide in one hand and a yearning to see change in another, I returned to Kenya and shared my India experience with my Member Organization (MO) and my peers. And thus began my journey to taking action. Shortly afterwards, I became the first woman below 25 years old in my MO to actively take part in the Stop the Violence campaign locally. Many others have since followed suit.
See, the Kenya Girl Guides Association (KGGA) has for many years remained active in advocating against harmful practices like female genital mutilation (FGM) that continue to negatively affect the well-being of girls in various rural communities. Despite extensive efforts, the association has often grappled with the fact that the extent to which gender-based violence (GBV) cases occur, remains challenging to determine. This has only been further cemented by a culture of silence that eclipses many such incidences within communities in Kenya. The Voices Against Violence curriculum developed by WAGGGS and UN Women has been instrumental in breaking this barrier. I relate my own experience working with this curriculum as a testament to this.
The curriculum adopts a non-formal education approach with six key learning outcomes to create and build an understanding and knowledge in its participants of the root causes and forms of violence, its prevention and the steps in taking action: START, THINK, IDENTIFY, SUPPORT, SPEAK OUT and TAKE ACTION.
Creating a safe and supportive space
In Kisumu, we were able to 'start' the curriculum by developing a safe and supportive space for children and young people like myself to be relaxed and able to express themselves on issues about gender inequality and violence against girls and young women, without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, or unsafe on account of qualities that define their personal identity such as sex, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and so on.
Thinking about roles, norms and expectations
Participants were then able to 'think' about how the roles, norms and expectations of them as young women or girls in a patriarch society influenced their position in the community, and how these factors contributed to their vulnerability to violence within their homes and communities.
Identifying forms of violence in the community
Participants were then able to 'identify' the forms of violence in the community in order to take the necessary steps of action. For instance while delivering the curriculum in Kisumu participants identified DV and sexual assault as the most common forms of physical violence in their communities. This way, we were able to form a discussion around these topics and brainstorm on ways to raise awareness as well prevent occurrences before they happen. We were also able to map out potential allies in this campaign. The other half in the gender-related violence equation, Men and boys were not left out either. They are important allies and powerful tools of change too, if fully sensitized.
SUPPORT, SPEAK OUT and TAKE ACTION
Supporting victims of violence, and speaking out
Supporting victims of violence is an important element in its fight. Kenya, for instance, has numerous laws to combat violence against women and girls. The challenge lies in implementation. Thus, in August 2015, the KGGA, with support from UN Women Kenya as part of the wider Voices against Violence project, launched a policy brief examining setbacks in the implementation of laws and policies in Kenya that address gender-based violence in the pilot area context of Kisumu. This was shared with the relevant stakeholders including the media, government representatives, community members and opinion leaders. A summary of the brief was also published in local newspapers. It encompassed recommendations to the gaps identified in laws and policies that hinder tackling gender-based violence.
When tackling violence, the media is not free of blame either. Giving audience pieces of news that drive negative stereotypes against women and girls into the minds of the public only leads to more harm than good. For this reason, we sought to strongly engage the media to create awareness on the role they play in raising awareness to the public. Young boys and girls from 49 primary and secondary schools in Kisumu also participated in a march in the streets flagged by the county governor. They wore t-shirts and distributed flyers donned with awareness messages. They also dramatized these messages using plays, songs, role plays and skits which gained huge public interest and attracted multitudes to the event. Piloting the curriculum alone enabled us to reach approximately 12,000 school going children - two thirds of them being girls. The impact as seen through my eyes has been among others, watching more young people speak out and less bystanders on the streets.
Over five years ago, a man hitting a woman in public on the streets of Kisumu would be greeted with silent stares and taken as another normal occurrence in the order of the day. Today, a similar incident would invoke a public outcry and many would step in to intervene not just for the sake of the victim but also for the sake of children in the crowds who often silently witness and normalize these acts in their minds.
Today I take another important step in this journey of a thousand miles and urge you all to protect your daughters, sisters, wives and all the women in your lives from violence and the harmful norms and stereotypes that perpetrate it... by words and by deeds. Most importantly, I remind you of these words, “"Thou shalt not be a victim, thou shalt not be a perpetrator, but, above all, thou shalt not be a bystander.""
Veronica Shiroya, Kenya - CSW 60 Youth Delegate
Veronica's speech was also translated into Swahili and delivered over UN radio.