Voices from the Field – IRC Blog

International Rescue Committee (IRC) Refugee, Staff & Volunteer Blog

Archive for November, 2007

Rose Wahome: We have to work together to prevent HIV

Posted by Kate Sands Adams on 30 November, 2007

Rose Wahome
Photo: Dorothy Peprah/The IRC
Ela Anil, IRC’s reproductive health program manager, recently interviewed Rose Wahome about her work helping to prevent HIV/AIDS in one of the world’s largest refugee camps.Rose is a nurse midwife who started with IRC in 2005 in South Sudan, and now works in the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. The IRC has worked in Kakuma since 1992, when we started a primary health care program that includes a network of clinics and community outreach services.

Could you please describe your HIV work with the IRC?

I started working with IRC in the August of 2005 in  and stayed there for 22 months. When I got there, the HIV program was in its fourth year and I realized it was mainly a prevention program, focusing on raising awareness.  IRC and ARC were working together, in different sites, but funded under the same USAID program. IRC was based in Rumbek. They had just finished an assessment survey when I started. The survey showed us a few things to work on: there was very low condom use and high rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). People were having multiple sexual partners and sexual debut was very early, sometimes younger than 15, for both boys and girls. Culturally, polygamy and wife inheritance were accepted. HIV prevalence was low, at 0.4 %, so we focused on prevention activities.

After the survey, we continued raising awareness on HIV prevention and transmission, but this time in a much more targeted way. We worked with uniformed forces, in school and out of school youth, and women. For all the groups we had peer educators, from their communities. We got educational materials from Kenya and Uganda and translated them.

What were some of the challenges you faced in your HIV prevention work?

One big challenge was language. Many people hadn’t gone to school during the war, literacy was low and we couldn’t have gone out and conducted our activities in English. Finding local staff was a challenge. So we worked with the English speaking community members we could find and trained them to be peer educators.

Also, remember, this was a post-conflict situation. People didn’t think about AIDS, it was not a priority. They were trying to settle down, build their own shelters, trying to get access to food and water. The same applied to donors, HIV/AIDS was not coming through as a priority.
 
Was stigma an issue in your work?

Yes, stigma was a big problem. People who tested positive were not accepted in the community. Especially women – of a woman tested positive she was blamed and abandoned by her husband. Most husbands were in denial, we tried to get them to the VCT centers as well.

Many of those who had been repatriated from Uganda and tested positive chose to return to Uganda. This was not so easy for women.

How did you work with these challenges?

We kept reaching out to people. People were generally open to our messages once we were able to communicate with them. But, because the materials we were using were from Kenya and Uganda, sometimes they were able to say “this [HIV/AIDS] is a foreign problem. It is not our problem.”

We encouraged community members to make use of IRC’s voluntary counseling and testing centers and know their status. As time went by and Sudanese refugees were repatriated, we started getting more positive results.  We were working with partners and had set up counseling centers in our partners’ facilities where we could provide treatment for STIs.

To reach out to women, we worked with lady peer educators and offered VCT services with ante-natal care. We explained to women that testing could help protect the heath of their newborn. Most women wanted to be tested when they realized their newborn could be protected.

Could you speak a little bit about your work in Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya?

Here I am working with the health team to strengthen our behaviour change communication (BCC) strategy to change people’s risky behaviours. Actually, here in the camp, conditions are similar to South Sudan in some ways. As refugees, people are very focused on improving their means of livelihood and HIV/AIDS is not a priority. But it is easier to reach people in the camp community; it is a closely knit community and IRC has a very a strong presence.

The total population of the camp used to be 92,000. Since many Sudanese have been repatriated, now we are serving about 62,000 people. We are focusing on reaching out-of-school youth who constitute one fourth of the population and we’re working with Sudanese and Somali staff who are refugees themselves.

How do you feel about your work? What motivates you?

I have come to really like working on HIV prevention. We can help people change their behaviour and this actually helps them avoid HIV. Once we reach out to people, sit down with them, give them facts and accurate information, they are open to change. This is what motivates me.

When I was working in South Sudan, there was a pregnant woman who came to the antenatal clinic and tested positive for HIV. She was advised to come to get Nevirapine at 28 weeks, to prevent transmission to her baby. She did, and when her pains began and she went to the clinic for delivery, her baby was given Nevirapine as well. She gave birth to a very healthy baby.

But right after delivery, her condition started worsening, she became very weak and started showing signs of AIDS, everything went down very quickly. In Sudan, we didn’t have anti-retrovirals (ARVs) so the hospital sent her home because they couldn’t do much.  Her husband didn’t want her back, so she went back to her parents’ home. I wanted to find her and follow up so I found out where she lived and visited her. The baby was health but the mother was so weak she couldn’t walk.

I appeared to the World Food Program in Rumbek and got food for themother and formula for the baby. 3 months later the mother was walking. On World AIDS Day in 2006, she came to the field and participated in our activities. This made me very happy. This is what keeps me going.

I am asking everyone to work on preventing HIV transmission. The day we break the chain of transmission is when we achieve prevention. And we have to work together, in partnerships, no one can do this work alone.

Loki teachers
                                                                        Photo: Dorothy Peprah/The IRC

Posted in Africa, Aids, health, refugees | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

16 Days – Day 6: Les Droits de l’Homme

Posted by Ann Jones on 30 November, 2007

Village women attending this meeting to learn about GBV’s Global Crescendo project objected to the presence of a male translator on the grounds that “men lie.”
Village women attending this meeting to learn about GBV’s Global Crescendo project objected to the presence of a male translator on the grounds that “men lie.” Photo: Ann Jones
The International Rescue Committee is working with writer, photographer and long-time women’s advocate Ann Jones to give women in war zones an opportunity document their own lives with digital cameras and make their voices heard. Ann is blogging from West Africa, posting new photos and stories each day for 16 days, starting November 25 — the kick-off of “16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence.” You can catch her earlier posts here and sign up to get e-mail alerts about new posts at theIRC.org/join16days.

Yamoussoukro, Cote d’Ivoire “Men lie!” the old woman says.  The men at the meeting laugh.  The stony-faced village Chief cracks a smile.  But the women aren’t laughing.  They support the old woman’s objection to their exclusive meeting being translated by a man. I’m reminded of Afghan women who told me they want to learn to read so they can see if the Koran really says what mullahs and husbands say it does.  Here in Cote d’Ivoire, a world away from Afghanistan, I find the same suspicion among women that they’re being conned.

At this village meeting, where we hoped for 5 volunteers, 43 women wanted to sign up.
At this village meeting, where we hoped for 5 volunteers, 43 women wanted to sign up.

I’ve come to this village with my Ivoirian colleague Tanou to invite women to participate in our special GBV project called Global Crescendo. But we’ve walked right into this persistent dilemma.  Tanou and I explain our project in French.  Often, when my feeble French fails me, I switch to English and Tanou provides the French.  Then a man from the village takes over, translating from French to the local language.  He seems to be a nice guy, a local official who assists other IRC programs as well, but the women are skeptical nonetheless.  The old woman’s attitude suggests: “You can’t fool me with your bright yellow IRC T-shirt.  The fact is, men lie.”

The man offers to give way to a woman.  That’s when we learn what he must already know: that among the forty or fifty women crowded onto the steps of the chief’s reception house, there is not a single one who speaks French.

Georgette Gnogbo
Georgette Gnogbo quickly raised her hand to volunteer
as a photographer for the Global Crescendo project.
Photo: Ann Jones

Among Cote d’Ivoire’s population of more than sixty different tribes and tongues, French long ago became the common language of commerce and politics.  Even in rural villages, many men speak French.  The fact that women do not reflects their long exclusion from public life.  And it means that all the information they get, including what they need to know to make sound decisions about such personal matters as their own health and reproduction and the wellbeing of their children, comes to them from the mouths of men.

Women have been bamboozled, and they know it.

Take human rights, for example.  In French that’s “les droits de l’Homme”—the rights of man.  Spelled with a capital H, the word Homme is meant to include both genders; but when the phrase is spoken, the capital letter conveniently disappears.  Men produce a literal translation.  IRC field agents leading “sensibilisation” discussions astonished villagers with the news that “Homme” in that phrase about droits includes “femme” too.  Les droits de la femme?  Impossible!  Even women think “the rights of woman” were invented by the IRC.  But they like the idea.  Les droits humaine.

IRC field agent Gbozie Marie Chantal leads village volunteers for the Global Crescendo project to their first meeting.
IRC field agent Gbozie Marie Chantal leads village volunteers for the Global
Crescendo project to their first meeting.  Her IRC T-shirt translates  “Respect for the
rights of woman protects her from violence.” Photo: Ann Jones

Still we’re stuck with this male translator to explain the Global Crescendo project.  It will go on in their village for the next five weeks.  It’s meant to give women a chance to document their daily lives, their problems, their consolations and joys.  It’s meant to give them time and space to talk together and come up with an agenda for change.  It’s meant to give them a chance to make their lives known to people in other lands, all around the globe, through the IRC website and exhibitions.

But how?  They are to document their lives with digital cameras that I will give them and teach them to use.  How many have used a camera before?  We call for a show of hands.  None.  Most have never seen a camera before.

These women, none of whom had ever seen a camera before, quickly came together as a team.  Five women and a baby would share one camera during the project.
These women, none of whom had ever seen a camera before, quickly came together
as a team.  Five women and a baby would share one camera during the project.

 I show them mine—a little digital point and shoot, just like the ones I will teach them to use.  I snap some shots and show them the camera’s viewing screen—displaying images of themselves.  Amazed, they gaze at one another, eyes darting from the screen to the faces of the women represented there.  Fingers point.  Smiles erupt.Who would like to join in?

There’s no more discussion.  They get it.  A camera.  Pictures!  No translation.

The hands go up.

Posted in Africa, photos, women | Tagged: , , , | 13 Comments »

16 Days – Day 5: “Sensibilisation”

Posted by Ann Jones on 29 November, 2007

The IRC’s Tanou Virginie, GBV Program Manager in Yamoussoukro, addresses a gathering of chiefs.
Photo: Ann Jones
The International Rescue Committee is working with writer, photographer and long-time women’s advocate Ann Jones to give women in war zones an opportunity document their own lives with digital cameras and make their voices heard. Ann is blogging from West Africa, posting new photos and stories each day for 16 days, starting November 25 — the kick-off of “16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence.” You can catch her earlier posts here and sign up to get e-mail alerts about new posts at theIRC.org/join16days.

Yamoussoukro, Cote d’Ivoire “Sensibilisation” In a rundown Yamoussoukro neighborhood, I follow my Ivoirian colleague Tanou Virginie down a dusty passage to a world I thought was lost.  We enter an assembly hall, built in typical African fashion with walls just high enough to sit upon and a roof overhead for shade.  Tanou has wangled an invitation to discuss IRC’s Gender-Based Violence program with chiefs of all the Quartiers (neighborhoods) of Yamoussoukro.

While Yamoussoukro chiefs meet in splendid regalia, this woman draws water to do laundry. Photo: Ann Jones
While Yamoussoukro chiefs meet in splendid regalia, this woman
draws water to do laundry. Photo: Ann Jones

There they are, seated in plastic lawn chairs, wrapped in splendid woven cloths of many colors.  Those in the front ranks are crowned in black pillbox hats adorned with brilliant medallions and topped by elephants of finest gold.  The chief in the center, resplendent in robes of royal blue and yellow, wears a long golden chain bearing a big golden crocodile which seems, when the chief is seated, to sleep upon his lap.

I am bedazzled.  But Tanou, after politely acknowledging both the chiefs’ invitation and their splendor, takes charge.  She describes the IRC’s work in Cote d’Ivoire, and then she turns to the GBV program and its particular concern for women.

The kind of violence against women I’ve been talking about in my postings doesn’t come from thin air.  Using women as a tactic of war, or a piece of the spoils, is only to be expected from men already in the habit of thinking of women as “things.”   So what, Tanou wonders aloud, do the chiefs think about the lives of women?

The mood of this strange photo evokes the vulnerability of women.  National law prescribes strong punishments for rape and other forms of violence against women, but few cases ever reach courts of law.  Instead, chiefs rule. Typically they find the woman at fault and the attacker blameless. Photo: Kouassi N’Guessan Francoise
The mood of this strange photo evokes the vulnerability of women.  National law prescribes
strong punishments for rape and other forms of violence against women, but few cases ever
reach courts of law.  Instead, chiefs rule.  Typically they find the woman at fault
and the attacker blameless. Photo: Kouassi N’Guessan Francoise

Women’s lives are very difficult, they say.  Much more difficult than those of men.  Tanou asks, “Why is that?”  They offer philosophical quotations from Houphouet-Boigny, the founding father of the country.  When gently pressed, they come up with “poverty,” a handy, all-purpose explanation in Africa.  Tanou notes that men live in poverty too, yet as the chiefs have observed, their lives are not quite so hard.

But women have many children, a big chief says, as if they did so all by themselves. Tanou asks with a disarming smile, “Who decides how many children a woman will have?”

The chiefs have to laugh.  One says, “Of course it is men who decide.  But it is women who must educate the children.”

“Ah,” Tanou says, “It is good that you recognize the capacity of women to carry out this important task.”

Old chiefs like this one and his younger assistant joined the discussion of women’s “problems”: the myriad forms of violence that are part of women’s daily lives. Photo: Ann Jones
Old chiefs like this one and his younger assistant joined the discussion of
women’s “problems”: the myriad forms of violence that are
part of women’s daily lives. Photo: Ann Jones

In the space of half an hour, she has shifted the chiefs’ talk from political platitudes to what goes on in the bedroom and turned their truisms inside out.  One chief removes his crown and stows it in a plastic bag.

But traditional chiefdom is not to be confused with backwardness.  These men want to advance their communities.  Tanou draws them out to name women’s “problems.”  Battering.  Rape.  Forced marriage.  Inadequate health care.  Excision—or what we call in the west FGM: Female Genital Mutilation.  Banned by law for a decade, it is still practiced and still the most taboo topic of all.

After Yamoussoukro chiefs were introduced to the IRC’s GBV program at this meeting, they invited the local IRC GBV team to work in their quartiers. Photo: Ann Jones
After Yamoussoukro chiefs were introduced to the IRC’s GBV program at this meeting,
they invited the local IRC GBV team to work in their quartiers. Photo: Ann Jones

Do the chiefs know, Tanou asks, that they can send survivors of all these “problems” to the Social Center for assistance and counseling? Free. The chiefs see that Tanou can be useful.  When she wraps up the discussion an hour later, they’re calling for meetings like this in every neighborhood.  As soon as possible.

The process we’ve just gone through is a mouthful in French: “sensibilisation.”  Old guard feminists would call it “consciousness raising.”  It’s a big part of what the GBV program does here, hand in hand with direct services.  But that’s not all.  I haven’t even gotten to the special project that brings me here.  It’s called “Global Crescendo” and it’s coming up next.

Posted in Africa, photos, women | Tagged: , , , , , , | 7 Comments »

Voices from the Archive – Helping Women Survive

Posted by Kate Sands Adams on 29 November, 2007

Stop Violence
Photo: Gerald Martone/The IRC
In a phone briefing held on International Women’s Day (March 8, 2007) Heidi Lehmann, IRC’s senior technical advisor on gender-based violence, discussed violence against women and what the IRC is doing to help.

Listen in as she talks about her personal experiences working with women in Congo, Thailand and elsewhere.

Posted in Africa, Asia, refugees, women | 3 Comments »

16 Days – Day 4: Targeting Women

Posted by Ann Jones on 28 November, 2007

Young women and old alike, like these villagers, are targets of violence during and after conflict.
Young women and old alike, like these villagers, are targets of violence during and after conflict. Photo: Ann Jones
The International Rescue Committee is working with writer, photographer and long-time women’s advocate Ann Jones to give women in war zones an opportunity document their own lives with digital cameras and make their voices heard.

Ann is blogging from West Africa, posting new photos and stories each day for 16 days, starting November 25 — the kick-off of “16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence.” You can catch her earlier posts here and sign up to get e-mail alerts about new posts at theIRC.org/join16days.

Yamoussoukro, Cote d’Ivoire I borrow the title from an Amnesty International report on Cote d’Ivoire, issued last March.  It says:

The scale of rape and sexual violence in Cote d’Ivoire in the course of the armed conflict has been largely underestimated.  Many women have been gang raped or have been abducted and reduced to sexual slavery by fighters.  Rape has often been accompanied by the beating or torture (including torture of a sexual nature) of the victim . . . . All armed factions have perpetrated and continue to perpetrate sexual violence with impunity.

Human Rights Watch reports that “cases of sexual abuse may be significantly underreported” because women fear “the possibility of reprisals by perpetrators, . . . ostracism by families and communities, and cultural taboos.”

Human Rights Watch reports that girls as young as three were raped during the conflict.
Human Rights Watch reports that girls as young as three were
raped during the conflict. Photo: Soro Rokia

The Amnesty report documents case after case of girls and women, aged “under 12” to 63, assaulted by armed men.  The more recent and thoroughgoing report by Human Rights Watch records the rape of children as young as three.  Women and girls are seized in their village homes or at military roadblocks.  They are discovered hiding in the bush. They are too young or too old to run fast.  Some are raped in public.  Some are raped in front of their husbands and their children.  Some are forced to witness the murder of their husband or parents.  Then they are taken away to soldiers’ camps where they are held, along with many other women. They are forced to cook for the soldiers and repeatedly gang raped, in some cases by 30 or 40 men.  They are beaten and tortured.  They see women who resist beaten and murdered, their throats slit.

Women taking part in the GBV Global Crescendo project took these photographs of violence in their villages. These photos are not staged.  They document real attacks against women as they took place.  Men routinely use violence against women with complete impunity.
Women taking part in the GBV Global Crescendo project took these photographs
of violence in their villages. These photos are not staged.  They document real attacks
against women as they took place.  Men routinely use violence against women
with complete impunity. Photo: Goze Martine

The rapes result in lasting injuries and pain.  The Amnesty report coolly says:  “The brutality of rape frequently causes serious physical injuries that require long-term and complex treatment including uterine prolapses (the descent of the uterus into the vagina or beyond)”—one has to wonder what lies “beyond” the vagina—“vesico-vaginal or recto-vaginal fistulas and other injuries to the reproductive system or rectum, often accompanied by internal and external bleeding or discharge.”  It notes that women can’t “access the medical care they need.”  Some women still find it hard to sit down or stand up or walk.  Some still spit up blood.  Some have lost their eyesight or their memory. Some miscarried.  Many contracted sexually transmitted diseases and HIV.  Nobody knows how many died, or are dying, as a result.

And many are still missing, perhaps dragged across borders when rogue militias from Liberia and Sierra Leone were expelled from the country.  Perhaps slaughtered along the way.

Where old customs approve the use of force against women, and tribal leadership takes no stand against it, there is nothing to stop it.  Consequently, violent attacks often take place openly and undeterred in public, even in the presence of photographers.
Where old customs approve the use of force against women, and tribal leadership
takes no stand against it, there is nothing to stop it.  Consequently, violent attacks
often take place openly and undeterred in public, even in the presence of photographers. 
Photo: Youan Lou Irie Jeanette

Women have long been counted among “the spoils of war,” free for the taking.  But women in large numbers are also targeted as pawns in deliberate military and political strategies intended to humiliate the men to whom they “belong” and exterminate their ethnic groups.  (Think of Bosnia.)  The Amnesty report traces the wholesale violence against women in Cote d’Ivoire to December 2000 when a number of women were arrested, raped, and tortured at the government’s Police Training School in Dioula—because their presumed ethnicity and political affiliation allied them with the opposition.  Human Rights Watch reports that the well-documented Dioula affair is only one of many similar cases incited at the time –before the war—by government sponsored racist propaganda.

Violence against women and girls always explodes during and after war. Rape and beating, used as tools of war, become habits that continue long after men stop fighting against each other.
Violence against women and girls always explodes during and after war. Rape and beating,
used as tools of war, become habits that continue long after men stop fighting
against each other. Photo: Seri Prudence

No man responsible for any of these crimes has ever been “brought to justice.”  Amnesty calls that “a disturbing signal to future perpetrators of sexual violence in Cote d’Ivoire.”  I’d call it a green light. 

During recent years, such things happened to women in Cote d’Ivoire because they are women. 

That’s GBV.  Next time I’ll tell you what we’re doing about it here.

Posted in Africa, health, photos, war, women | Tagged: , , , , , | 21 Comments »