Giving Technical Assistance on Gender and VAWG Prevention: Balancing ‘Ownership’ and ‘Transformation’
When a public-sector organisation in Afghanistan decided to produce a set of gender resources for its employees, independent consultant Julienne Corboz was asked to provide support to the team responsible for designing the resources and also provide feedback on the final document.
After nine months of preparation, the donor’s deadline to finalise the document was approaching. When Julienne received the first draft of the gender resource document, translated into English, she realised that the team had a long way to go before what they had created could be put into use.
Chapters covered a number of topics, including gender and Islam, gender in a global context, and a chapter on violence against women and girls (VAWG). The reproduction of typical gender stereotypes—“men are violent, women are peaceful, that sort of thing”—was dispiriting but easily fixed, Julienne explained. The problem was the content on who is responsible for violence.
A key theme running through the document was that women are responsible for the violence perpetrated against them. One section stated—correctly—that violent behaviours are often learned in childhood and then expressed in adulthood. However, the document also claimed that, because women are the primary caregivers for children, they bear responsibility for passing on violent norms to their children. Mentions of men were largely absent from the chapter on VAWG: they were described as perpetrators only insofar as their mothers forced them to beat their wives.
In a prior preparation workshop to support organisational staff to design the content for the chapter on VAWG, the issue of mother-in-law violence had already come up. Workshop participants emphasised that mothers-in-law were the root cause of violence. Julienne recalls, “When we were talking about why this was problematic, everyone kept saying, ‘You don’t understand, we have mothers-in law, we know how they act.’”
Julienne provided the team with some data from recent research, including the Afghanistan Demographic Health Survey. This showed that of those women who had reported any lifetime physical violence, 94% reported their husbands as the perpetrator, and only 7% reported their mother-in-law. She also cited some research she had conducted that showed that intimate partner violence occurred in households both with and without mothers-in-law residing with the couple, and even in families where mothers-in-law were no longer alive. Although these findings sparked some interest among the group, they had clearly not made sufficient impact as the ‘mother-in-law as primary perpetrator’ discourse had made it into the violence chapter.
Another concerning section in the chapter on VAWG was related to how to deal with sexual harassment in the workplace. Julienne recalls, “There was a step-by-step process of what staff members should do if they observe sexual harassment of a female colleague. The first step was to assess the woman’s morality. If she was ‘immoral’ or not ‘from a good family’, the guidance said that she may have deserved it.”
Receiving the document late in the process, Julienne struggled with how to respond. “This had to be an organisation-owned document,” she said, and an impending deadline left little scope for a drawn-out process of supporting the organisation to rethink and rewrite the content. Yet, at the same time, the document wasn’t challenging conservative norms; “it was feeding them and actually making them worse.” One encouraging sign was that some senior staff in the organisation who had reviewed the draft document had also picked up on some of the gender stereotypes – although they seemed to lack a broader awareness of the harmful nature of some of the content, particularly related to VAWG.
Julienne had to find a balance between respecting the organisation’s autonomy and ownership over the document, and removing the harmful elements of it. “We retained a lot of the content, but removed the harmful stuff and explained why this was done,” said Julienne.
The process exposed some serious shortcomings in the organisation’s understanding of gender in general and violence in particular. But it also became a moment of self-reflection with an important lesson for Julienne.
While the workshop sessions on violence that Julienne had supported had covered the core tenets of prevention and the dynamics driving violence against women, she thinks she may have “assumed” too much of the work around gender roles and norms had already been done, while the basics were still lacking.
“One key learning that came out of the process was that this work needs to start not only with sessions on ‘what is gender inequality’ and ‘what is gender-based violence’, but with strong, interactive work around leading people through that process of questioning their own assumptions.”
“We didn’t question enough whether they were able to move past their own cultural assumptions,” said Julienne. She explained that although some progress was being made in Afghanistan in relation to building individual and organisational capacity to address gender inequality and VAWG, many gaps still remain. Gender and violence are often perceived to be highly sensitive topics that many people tread cautiously around, and so “awareness raising workshops related to gender and violence against women often don’t go beyond the one-off training with a Gender 101 format.”
Rather than continuing down this path, it is essential to engage in a gradual interactive dialogue so people can explore and question their own gendered experiences, attitudes and assumptions, before they are able to apply new knowledge on gender and VAWG to their work. One challenge to this kind of gradual approach is the piecemeal nature of projects that support gender mainstreaming and violence prevention, and the lack of funding for longer term projects that are able to facilitate ongoing learning, dialogue and gender-transformative change.
Julienne Corboz is an independent research, evaluation and capacity building consultant specialising in gender, violence against women and children and harmful traditional practices. She has more than 15 years’ experience working across multiple country contexts, in both development and humanitarian settings. For the last six years Julienne has worked predominantly in Afghanistan conducting research on violence prevention and the rights of women and children. She has also worked as a gender advisor and technical advisor with various organisations, including international and national NGOs and government organisations.