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Agents of Their Own Protection: Activism to Stop Violence against Women

Mike Wessells, Senior Protection Advisor for CCF, spoke recently at the United Nations on the human rights violations occurring daily to women and girls world wide and its effects on the psychosocial development of women and girls. He also integrated the importance of acknowledging the cultural bases of violence and community-based mechanisms of reintegration, punishment, and healing.

The aim of the panel was to educate member states, civil society, and various UN bodies on the Secretary General Resolution 61/143 which stipulates the obligation of states in the prevention and protection of women and girls against violence and to provide justice. The resolution outlines a range of measures but aims to end the structural violence against girls and women and identify the kinds of actions needed at different levels, such as the family, community, state, and inter-governmental levels. Speakers from the The Kingdom of the Netherlands and France spoke to the difficulties of implementation due to the inherent nature of violence against women and girls in many societies.

Gender-based Violence (GBV) knows no boundaries and indiscriminately touches the lives of women and girls around the world. Often it escalates in emergency situations, and community beliefs and practices contribute to the violence. In Northern Uganda, spouse beating is widespread in IDP (Internally Displaced People) camps, yet cultural factors thwart prevention of the violence. In fact, when women have sought assistance from traditional mechanisms of justice (which are led by men), they have been told that their husbands had the right to beat and violate them.

However, it would be misguided to view communities only as problems and sources of harm to girls and women. Communities are also important sources of protection, support, and human rights fulfillment. Wessells noted that in rural Bolivia, where girls were sexually abused by teachers and peers at an alarming rate, girls organized girls’ clubs and provided psychosocial care for one another, launched a community campaign to shame those who had committed the crimes against them, and created a monitoring system of gender-based violence within their community aimed at preventing the occurrence of further violence. “This example shows that girls are not passive victims; they are survivors and agents of their own protection.” A key feature of the campaign, which successfully reduced GBV, was its inclusion of men, who could set positive role models for other men.

Similarly, in post-war Sierra Leone, a key task was the reintegration of girls who had been abducted and sexually abused by the Revolutionary United Front. On return to their villages, the girls were often harassed and sexually assaulted. And, in Sierra Leone, women have united and organized discussion groups on the violence occurring within their communities and built awareness of their situation through drama. This community education led villagers to organize Girl Well-Being Committees (GWBC) that set rules against harassment and sexual abuse and imposed fines for violators. The success of these actions in reducing the attacks on girls indicates the importance of ending impunity for the perpetrators, a lesson that needs to be extended worldwide. The Committees assisted in the established of monitoring systems designed to assist in preventative and protective measures. This is important because the problems of GBV are deeply embedded and cannot be addressed overnight—effective prevention requires having ongoing systems of monitoring and action.

Wessells also identified a link between healing and prevention: “Women who have survived exploitation and assault continue to be at risk of further assaults, and mental health and psychosocial supports are needed to put them in a position that reduces these risks.” But he emphasized that mitigation has to be supported by robust systems of prevention. At the heart of these are community education, locally-owned systems of protection, the ending of impunity, the engagement of men, and the promotion of girls’ and women’s rights. “Without protection, there is no prevention,” Wessells noted. “Many victims of GBV are aggravated victims of violence, and through advocating for and enforcing girl friendly policies, men can be held accountable and women and girls can be protected from further violations of their human rights.”
“As the problems are systematic and holistic, prevention must be systemic and holistic.” Wessells said that change must occur at the micro systems of society first, followed by the macro systems in order to create a safe environment for women and girls. Political changes in the societal status of women are crucial. Through community integration, men’s involvement in changing cultural norms, female empowerment, and advocacy, it is possible to prevent GBV and protect the rights of girls and women.