March 2010

Meet Our Featured Guest Columnist: Jeanne Ward

Psychotherapist Jeanne Ward works to prevent sexual violence against women and children (gender-based violence). Her expertise is in conflict situations, and she has worked in Eastern Europe, Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia. She has investigated gender-based violence and support services in over twenty countries, and has published a photo-essay book to raise awareness of the problem. In 2007 she left Nairobi in order to teach a class on international social policy at Smith College in Massachusetts.

Q: What does "health and human rights" mean to you?

A: Ensuring the health and well-being of individuals, families, and communities is inextricably linked to promoting and protecting universal human rights.   The importance of recognizing and addressing this link between health and human rights comes into sharp relief around the issue of gender-based violence (GBV).   In the early days of GBV programming in complex emergencies--around the mid-1990s--reproductive health activists were at the forefront of developing services for survivors, and those of us who are now working to improve GBV-related prevention and response initiatives in conflict-affected settings around the world have much to thank these pioneers for putting GBV on the humanitarian agenda.  At minimum, the intersection of the fields of reproductive health and GBV allowed for a greater understanding of the physical and mental health impacts of violence against women and girls, including STIs, reproductive tract trauma, unwanted pregnancy and complications associated with unsafe abortions, somatic complaints, depression and suicide.  However,  as GBV programs expanded in conflict zones across Africa, Eastern Europe, and Asia in the late 1990s, it became evident that any long-term efforts to  improve the safety, security, and well-being of women and girls affected by or at risk of GBV must move beyond the provision of health care to include a wide variety of services and strategies, such as legal aid and psychosocial care.  Most importantly, combatting GBV requires challenging the structural inequalities between men and women that not only make women vulnerable to abuse, but also inhibit them from speaking out about it  and accessing support.  This is where the principle of universal human rights plays a key role:  a rights-based approach to GBV programming shifts the primary focus from the remedial or palliative care that defines the conventional "medical model"  or needs-based approach, to emphasize initiatives that seek to hold states accountable for investing in broad-based measures that support the fundamental rights of women and girls to be free from violence.   While the provision of direct services is critical in responding to the needs of individual survivors, these services will have little impact in settings where patriarchal attitudes and customs explicitly promote or implicitly condone the perpetuation of violence against women.  Reducing GBV involves encouraging fundamental social change that supports women's human rights as well their equal participation in economic and social development.     Thus, the lessons of GBV programming are that there can be no health for women and girls without human rights.

Q: What is Gender Based Violence (GBV) and how does it affect health and well being?

A: Gender-based violence (GBV) is a term describing any harm perpetrated against a person that results from unequal power relationships determined by social roles ascribed to males and females.  While recognizing that boys and men may be exposed to gendered violence, the inequality of power that is the foundation of GBV, coupled with women's inferior status in virtually all societies, means that women and girls are the primary targets of GBV around the globe.  As such, the term GBV continues to be used principally in reference to violence against women and girls. In a definition put forth in 1993 that is still widely referenced today, the United Nations classified violence against women as "any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual, or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion, or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life."

This definition highlights that violence against women (and girls) encompasses a broad range of abuses, from physical and sexual assault to emotional and institutional abuse or the threat of such abuse.   As such, manifestations of GBV might variously include domestic violence, rape, sexual harassment, exploitation, trafficking of women and girls, denial of rights, exclusion from social benefits and other forms of discrimination, and cultural practices that have harmful implications for women and girls, such as female genital mutilation, early/forced marriage, etc.

A fundamental aspect of gender-based violence against women and girls is that the violence is used in cultures around the world as way to both preserve and maintain women's subordinate status vis a vis men.  In other words, even the most particular acts of violence against women are both an expression of and a way to reinforce male domination--not just over individual women, but women as a whole class of people.   In this way, the gendered dimensions of violence against women are distinct from those of violence against men:  while men may certainly be exposed to violence as a result of their socially determined gender roles and norms, the violence they experience--or even perpetrate against other men--rarely if ever contributes to or confirms the overall subjugation of men as an entire subgroup of people. There are of course many other critically important vectors of oppression experienced by subgroups of men, such as race, class, creed, and sexuality, but within the prevailing global context of patriarchy, men are the power brokers in terms of gender, and women are the subsidiaries.

It should be noted that although "GBV" is the most commonly used idiom in humanitarian and development fields to describe violence against women and girls, there remains controversy about the utility of the term.  Some argue that it is not only too abstract to be meaningful, but also difficult to translate in most languages. Nevertheless, in so far as it implies that issues of gender underlie virtually all forms of violence against women and girls, the term continues to be widely favored because it has important theoretical and practical implications:  the language speaks to the necessity of examining the societal and relational contexts in which violence against women and girls occurs.  As such, the term extends beyond the descriptive to the operational level, implicating all members of society--men, women, boys and girls--in any efforts to reduce GBV. 

Q: Describe your current work.

A: I currently work as an independent consultant.  From my base in Nairobi, Kenya--where I relocated four years ago from New York City--I offer technical assistance to UN agencies and INGOs around the world.  Although my primary focus is on conflict-affected settings, I am increasingly  providing support to development settings, particularly in Southern Africa and Southern Asia.  My work has always been multi-faceted, in part because there are so few of us specializing in GBV that we have to challenge ourselves to develop expertise in a variety of areas.  Although I was initially trained as a social worker, my field experience has involved drafting global reports on GBV, conducting field-based prevalence studies, providing training on program design and on psychosocial response, and guiding governments and their partners in the development of national policies and action plans to address GBV.  No matter what the specific task, an advocacy orientation--one that constantly seeks to promote a human rights agenda that calls upon individuals, communities, and governments to question prevailing norms that undermine the rights and protections of women and girls--is at the heart of my work.

Q: What motivated you to get involved in this field?

A: Trying to define what inspired me to enter this field is a challenging task!  At the moment I've taken leave of my consulting responsibilities in Nairobi in order to teach a class on international social policy to graduate social work students at Smith College in Massachusetts, and they have challenged me with the same question.  My response to the students--some of whom will hopefully go on to infuse new energy and ideas into international rights work--was that working and living overseas was a dream that began for me in my early twenties, when so many of my friends were heading off for a year of traveling abroad or to volunteer in the peace corps.  I was envious!  While in graduate school in my late twenties, I set about trying to figure out how to make my private ambition to see the world align with the social work values that I had decided would form the basis of my professional life.   I started out as a clinical social worker in New York City, merging that with the field of violence against women when I became the director of a Manhattan-based community center serving survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault.  From there I went to Kosovo--shortly after the end of the NATO-led bombings and subsequent withdrawal of Serbian troops from Kosovo--to start a similar center.   It was among the most difficult and, in equal measure, most inspiring experiences I have ever had, not least because of the team of Kosovar women and men who worked alongside me to help build the center in the wake of a conflict that had devastated their homes, their families, and their community.  The center still exists today as an independent local NGO, and whenever I experience frustration with the seemingly intractable problem of GBV, I think of all that my colleagues in Kosovo have managed to accomplish, with so little resources and support from an international humanitarian community that withdrew as quickly as it initially engaged.  They fueled my passion to carry on the work of combatting GBV in other parts of the world.  Since then, I have had the privilege of working with women and men in over 30 countries across Africa, Asia, Europe, and Latin America who, despite their vast cultural differences, share a common vision of a world in which child marriage, FGM, domestic violence, rape in war, etc. etc., no longer exist.  They have honored me with their support, and I hope my work will continue to honor their vision.

Q: What are some successes and challenges you've experienced working against Gender Based Violence?

A: The successes are much more difficult to identify than the challenges, as they seem so small when compared to the scope of the problem.  Nevertheless, I have seen significant change, particularly in the last five years, with regard to the level of recognition of the problem of GBV in humanitarian contexts.  Sometimes--though not often enough--this change has translated into an expansion of field-based resources.  Certainly the number of humanitarian agencies that include GBV as one of their programming areas has grown significantly.   Governments are also increasingly committed to developing policies that work towards the elimination of GBV.  Even so, my observations in the field mirror the conclusions of the recently released UN Secretary General's Report on Violence Against Women:  while violence against women has received increased international attention as a form of discrimination against women and as a violation of their human rights, improved awareness has not translated into success in terms of reducing the prevalence of the violence.  The authors of the UN study attribute this global failure to the fact that  "violence against women has yet to receive the priority attention and resources needed at all levels to tackle it with the seriousness and visibility necessary."  Never is this more evident than in conflict-affected settings, where women and girls continue to be raped with impunity, and, in settings such as DRC and Darfur, with degrees of brutality that should be--but clearly are not--humanly inconceivable.  We continue to fail, which requires that we must question our methods and redouble our efforts.  Acceptance of violence against women and girls should be relegated to the shameful past of our global history.