The War at Home: Enduring Evidence

This post was written by Stella Mukasa.

When my colleague asked me if I had any questions for the woman before me in a hospital bed, her skin taut and raw from the burns, I could barely speak. The sight of her and the injuries she had sustained at the hands of her husband – the harshness of it all – silenced me.

“No,” I said in a near whisper.

It was 1992, and I was a young lawyer on the legal team at the Ministry of Women in my home country of Uganda. The woman – Margaret was her name – had been languishing in hospital for months after her husband beat her and threw her into a kerosene lamp, searing some 80 percent of her body. Margaret had written the ministry and sent a photo of herself. She needed financial help and also wanted her husband to be held accountable.

Meeting Margaret was the first time I had witnessed what violence against women truly looks like, and it was life-altering. The experience motivated me to take Margaret’s story to the highest political levels in my quest for justice for her and other women who face violence at home and elsewhere. It also solidified the trajectory of my professional life, which I have dedicated to fighting for women’s rights.

Most importantly however, Margaret’s story provided powerful evidence of a social ill that was just beginning to be addressed at the time in Uganda and globally. Two decades later, we’ve made great progress worldwide on the issue. But we are just now realizing the potential of evidence – specifically, research evidence  – to guide how best to develop strategies that effectively respond to and prevent gender-based violence, as well as policies that condemn and discourage gender based violence, create consequences for the perpetrators and protect the rights of survivors.

Indeed, the United States Agency for International Development’s (USAID) strategy on gender-based violence calls for improvements in the collection, analysis and use of data and research to enhance prevention and response efforts. We at ICRW commend this effort. We’ve long recognized the importance of research and for more than 35 years have been building evidence to demonstrate how social norms fuel violence against women and how to address its underlying causes.

Still, globally, there remains a dearth of the kind of comprehensive evidence to move the anti-violence field forward – evidence that can help scale up promising approaches to prevention and response as well as that which can compel decision-makers to enact laws to combat gender-based violence. In this still nascent field, the current landscape is comprised of many strong, but ad-hoc and duplicative programs. Particularly in the global south, the opportunities for us to reflect upon and assess the effectiveness of how we’ve responded to violence against women are limited. This is due in part to the lack of capacity to undertake research that can inform or generate the evidence for advocacy.

At ICRW, we’ve initiated a promising model to address the lagging research capacity in many parts of the world. One of our latest projects paired violence prevention organizations and research institutions to help the former carry out qualitative research that they shared with policy makers. We found such collaboration to be beneficial in that it de-mystified the concept of research, emphasized its significance to the higher goal of their work, and provided organizations with the skills to draw out key information to share with other organizations at the national level. These are important steps that can fill the gaps in our knowledge, raise awareness and foster change.

I witnessed the power of evidence 20 years ago, when I took Margaret’s story to the global level, during the Africa regional preparatory meeting for the United Nations World Conference on Human Rights. I had filmed her speaking about her experience with violence and shared it with delegates. Her story – along with testimonials of other survivors of violence – helped illustrate that yes, violence against women happens, and it transcends race, class, age and economics.

Although I had spent months trying to track down her husband, I never found him. He was in the army, and each time I located his whereabouts, I was informed that he had been transferred from his post. I soon realized that the system was protecting him.

However, Margaret’s and other survivors’ testimonies during the UN conference in 1993 sparked a significant turning point in efforts to recognize women’s right to live a life free of violence: Their testimonies ultimately informed the appointment of a UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women and the adoption of the UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women. This declaration later brought about the establishment of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, which is marked every year from Nov 25th to Dec 10th.

Although I am not in contact with Margaret today, she always assured me that she was willing to tell her story – to provide the evidence – if it could save even one woman from violence. I’m confident it did.

Stella-PortraitStella Mukasa is the Director of Gender Violence and Rights at International Center for Research on Women. Read more from her at ICRW’s Gender Lens.

This post was originally shared during #16Days on ICRW’s Gender Lens. It is republished here with permission.

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