This week, almost 8,000 miles away, a group of almost 50 young women danced their way up the aisle of a church hall, making their lively entrance into their graduation ceremony. It is graduation time at the Lulu Project, a year-long peer education program in Mwanza, Tanzania, in which teen women learn from other young women just like them about life skills, personal and family health, and entrepreneurship. I became involved in the program in 2013 when I was living in the East African country of Tanzania. As a Maryknoll Lay Missioner in Tanzania, I had been living in the city of Mwanza and working for a year at a Tanzanian NGO (non-government organization) called Kivulini. Kivulini (which in Swahili means “under the shade,” connoting the image of a safe place for women to meet) is a rights organization that educates about women’s rights in Tanzania and mobilizes communities to make change in the northwest of the country around Lake Victoria. I had been training staff to increase their capacity to run effective programs and assisting the agency to improve their human rights campaigns. Since Tanzania’s political and legal system is very “bottom-up” focused, Kivulini’s main approach is to educate local leaders to support victims of sexual and domestic violence. These are the first service providers faced by victims of crime and their success or failure can be helped or hindered at this very first step.
Before moving to Tanzania, I worked as Community Education Director at Sexual Trauma Services of the Midlands (STSM), a Columbia-based rape crisis center serving four counties in South Carolina. As Education Director, I facilitated hundreds of workshops on a variety of topics related to sexual violence and domestic abuse and developed a violence prevention program. I became very skilled at answering difficult questions about sexual violence, its root causes, systemic barriers, and ways to support victims and prevent it from happening in the first place. Quite naively, I thought my experiences had adequately prepared me to work in any global context to prevent violence against women. Violence is violence, right? Yes, of course it is and yes, the root causes are the same – a subjugation of another’s power in order to exert one’s control over them. Certainly there are many similarities between what I saw in my work at STSM and at Kivulini: dismissive responses by some communities about the prevalence and realities of violence, victim-blaming statements, the insistence that people abuse because they love the victim and want to “correct” ill behaviors, the false belief that men are victims just as often as women are, or the use of religion or God to defend abuse, etc. But what I wasn’t prepared for was how the differences in social, cultural, economic, familial, and religious contexts drastically impact approaches to violence prevention and intervention. Furthermore, in this country of almost 50 million people, where domestic violence shelters are virtually nonexistent, where there is no real evidence collection protocol for victims of rape, and where female genital mutilation is still widely practiced in some tribes, I found myself unprepared to work to make change on a macro-level. That’s when I found Lulu.
After being quite honest with myself that I just did not know enough about the culture to make sustainable and appropriate systemic change, I was compelled to work on a grass-roots level with young women themselves, to learn about their lives and the situations in which they live-the challenges and the joys-and to help them use the tools they inherently have to fight for changes in their country. Lulu, which means “pearl” in Swahili, works with over 200 girls in 8 neighborhoods around Mwanza to help young women appreciate that they are a treasure to their family and their community and to give them skills to improve their lives and the lives of their children. Due to a Tanzanian law that makes it illegal for pregnant girls to continue in school, thousands of unskilled, uneducated young mothers drop out each year, creating an abundance of women who are at higher risk of being forced into early marriage, more likely to be abused by a partner or spouse, and more likely to sell their bodies for money. This is a cycle that has repeated for generations all around the world. As co-coordinator of the Lulu Project, I got a first-hand education in violence prevention in the developing world. I saw a girl who cannot read or write start a small business of her own, earning the funds she needed to get out of an abusive relationship; I saw a woman who dropped out of 8th grade save money to build her family a safe, secure home; I saw shy young women who at first couldn’t look you in the eye transformed into proud leaders standing in front of local representatives demanding to be treated with respect. These women have a lot to celebrate as they dance at their graduation this week.
But I didn’t attend that graduation. I am back in the US now, back in South Carolina. As the new Advocacy and Outreach Coordinator at SCCADVASA (the South Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault), I am back in a country where we have hundreds of rape crisis centers for victims of sexual assault, where there are laws protecting abused women from losing their children if they leave their abusive partner, and in a state where many hospitals and emergency rooms have specially-trained nurses to document and collect evidence from victims of rape. When I told my Tanzanian friends and colleagues that I was leaving and returning to the US to continue working in violence prevention, they were confused. Many people in Tanzania look to America as a place where we “have it all together,” where intimate partner violence just doesn’t exist. They point to all the services we have and all the wealth that our country displays and wonder why an organization such as SCCADVASA exists in the first place. For all the wonderful things about America and all the strides we have made in this field, we still have a far way to go. For example, even though we have a protocol for collecting evidence after a sexual assault (called a rape kit), across the country there is a big backlog of having these kits tested. In South Carolina we don’t know how many kits are being held by law enforcement; therefore, we don’t have an accurate understanding of how big the problem is nor of how we can work to improve systemic responses that will improve outcomes for survivors and increase accountability for offenders. Also, many agencies that work with children, such as the Department of Social Services and others need to incorporate and improve systems to screen for domestic violence and the effects of trauma on children. Because our state lacks a unified system for collecting statics on various sexual and domestic abuses it’s impossible to get an accurate picture of how vast a problem this is, let alone to demand for the services that victims in this state need and deserve.
As Advocacy and Outreach Coordinator at SCCADVASA, I look forward to working with others in this field as we fight to tackle these and many other pressing issues in our state. Since 1981 SCCADVASA has been a leader in representing the critical needs of survivors of domestic and sexual abuse and their families by influencing public policy, advocating for social change, and building the capacity of member programs, organizations and communities across the state. I will be using my experiences from my grassroots and macro work both in the US and in Tanzania and will be bringing them home to create a safer and more just South Carolina.