A Ten Year Reflection

This year marks ten years since I started working on the prevention on gender-based violence in the international development sector. During this 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, I took some time to reflect on what I have learned over these past ten years. These are not new or unique ideas – they build upon my own experiences and the lessons I’ve learned from working with a huge bunch of inspiring people along the way:

1) All forms of violence are interconnected; all types of discrimination are interlinked – they always have been, and they always will be. It is clear that children who grow up in abusive environments are more likely to normalise violence as a way to resolve conflict. It is not a coincidence that most attackers in the seemingly-endless spate of mass shootings in the US have had a history of domestic violence. Regimes that promote homophobia are also often the most misogynistic. Even in maths, a negative plus a negative just equals another negative.

2) It starts with me. If I don’t live by the values of equality, respect and non-violence, I can’t expect anyone else to. This was not a one-off exercise; it is an ongoing reflection on my positionality, a regular check on my use of power, a constant attention to my choice of words and actions.

3) Living by point #2 means this line of work is not something you do from 9-5 Mon-Fri and then switch off; it is a constant state of reflection, analysis, and activism. Given that, I have learned that I need to take care of myself, and not feel guilty for taking the time to do that. The personal nature of this work makes it perhaps more emotionally draining than some other fields. If I ignore my own self-care needs, my ability to support others to make positive change quickly spirals downwards, dragging with it other components of my life. Maintaining this balance is not easy, though, and I have learned that I need others to look out for me as much as I need to look out for others around me.

4) Some of the most effective and practical approaches to ending violence are developed by local communities and local activists. People know their own context better than an outsider ever will. As donors and international organisations, we need to listen more and trust more.

5) Everyone is better off when we are equal. The growing discourse in some countries about toxic masculinity is beginning to shed light on how gender inequality is having major negative impacts on men and boys as well. Gender equality is not a zero-sum game. A woman having control over decisions about her own body doesn’t reduce a man’s control over decisions about his body; a person being able to marry someone of the same sex doesn’t infringe on another person’s ability to marry someone of a different sex; and women being paid the same as their male colleagues doesn’t reduce men’s salaries. It’s okay, everyone, we’re on a spherical planet, not a see-saw.

6) T-shirts won’t stop gender-based violence. It’s really a pity because it would be so convenient if that were the solution. But I think we can do better than that.

7) We are all in this together. Gender-based violence is not a matter of a few bad apples and, while I agree with legal ramifications for offenses, putting every single perpetrator into jail is not going to prevent this violence from happening in the future. This violence is a systemic problem across the globe and, regardless of our gender or where we live, we are all somehow involved. Because of this, we can all do something to help prevent gender-based violence, whether this is in our own families, our workplaces, our communities, or through our governments.

8) Little, sustained actions can make a bigger difference than large, one-off actions. Sure, they might not look as impressive in a report to the donor, but they work better.

9) There is a lot of great theorising going on amongst academic and research circles about how to prevent gender-based violence, but if it cannot be translated into something that a small community on a remote island can clearly understand and practically use, we may need to reflect and re-strategise.

10) Having 16 consecutive days of events, meetings, report launches, marches, and Facebook posts is a mental health burden for everyone I know who works on this issue. As a sector, we need to figure out how to resolve this while still being able to draw widespread attention to the cause.

Xian Warner

Research & Program Coordinator, based in Dili, Timor-Leste