Confronting violence

Confronting violence

Date: January 1, 1970
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Security is discrete but tight at the airport in Victoria, the capital of the Seychelles archipelago, to root out drug trafficking. The heavy suitcase I am carrying, packed with documents from Gender Links, is a sure candidate for a thorough screening: last to be disgorged on the conveyor belt and marked by airport staff with big Xs in white chalk.

A customs officer signals. I open it, show the large collection of brochures, and explain that I am facilitating a workshop on domestic violence. The customs officer perks up. “There is a lot of that here and the press does not cover it properly,” she says.
Bingo! I am not even past immigration and already I have a key workshop message from a local media consumer: journalists and editors need training to better report on this and other social issues.
The customs officer’s opinion is supported by a 2008 study on gender in the media in these blessed, beautiful islands. A mere 0.3 per cent of news covers gender violence, and even this little bit is sensationalised, insensitive and often exonerates the abuser.
The guesthouse where I stay belongs to a doctor. When I tell him why I am visiting, he nods. He sees plenty of abused women in his practice. Some want medical certificates for sick leave. Some want to cover their bruises to go to work. Most of these patients come towards the end of the month, after payday, when money and alcohol mix in a toxic brew.
The doctor says: “The women don’t know that they don’t have to take it.”  Bingo again! At the workshop, I am presenting a prevention model for gender-based violence designed by Gender Links, and organisation working throughout Southern Africa to, among other actions, encourage sustained campaigns for ending gender violence. Its first linchpin of the model is communication and education for social change.
The doctor adds: “Even if they knew, where would they go? Their families may be far away.” The second linchpin is services for those abused and rehabilitation for the abusers. They both need help, albeit of a different kind.
Finally, the doctor says, “There is not much I can do about it. I can only suggest they talk to their priest, if they have one.”
The third linchpin is to build support at all levels of society.  Start unpacking the issues that lead to domestic violence. Get politicians, religious leaders and the media active against domestic violence. Make police, prosecutors and judges aware of their duty to act. Change the laws if necessary.
This is happening in the Seychelles. Earlier this year, cabinet approved a national strategy against domestic violence.
The Gender Secretariat at the Ministry of Health and Social Development leads this effort towards building “a future where individuals, couples and families, will resolve their differences and disputes by talking to each other rather than resorting to violence,” in the words of Anne Lafortune, principal secretary of the Ministry of Health.
This future needs to start now. The number of domestic violence cases reported to the police increased by 30 per cent between 2006 and 2007.
Tessa Siu, research officer with the Secretariat, sees both good and bad news in this increase. On the one hand, domestic violence is growing due to alcohol and substance abuse, weakening family values and inflation-related stress. On the other, she sees less acceptance of gender-based violence and greater willingness of the abused – both women and men – to admit the problem and seek help.
A national survey conducted last year by the Secretariat found that:
·         11% of women have been raped by an intimate partner;
·         42% of women and 36% of men have experienced emotional abuse by an intimate partner
·         27% of women and 23% of men have experienced moderate physical violence
·         28% of women and 26% of men have experienced severe physical violence
Thus, the heavy suitcase from Gender Links that got me stopped at the airport. Working together with a group of government agencies, organisations, churches and media, we put together a communication plan for a national strategy and action plan for this years 16 Days of Activism Against Violence against Women, held from 25 November-10 December 2008.
The group set up a committee to coordinate actions for the next 16 Days. Perhaps the slogan they are considering says it all: Love unites, violence divides.

For more information: Mercedes Sayagues is a South Africa-based writer currently working with Gender Links (GL) to facilitate national action plans around gender violence. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that provides fresh views on everyday news.

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