In Their Own Words: Ending Gender-Based Violence in Darfur

An interview with Salma Abugideiri of the Peaceful Families Project

Originally published in the Summer/Fall 2012 issue of Rights Now.

UUSC and the Peaceful Families Project have engaged religious and community leaders in Darfur to reduce domestic and gender-based violence (GBV) in their communities. The program seeks to change attitudes toward GBV from the assumption that it is normal to the recognition that GBV is inconsistent with time-honored Islamic values. Gretchen Alther, a fellow in the Asia Pacific Leadership Program at the East-West Center in Honolulu and former senior associate in UUSC's Rights in Humanitarian Crises Program, interviewed Salma Abugideiri, codirector of the Peaceful Families Project, about the trainings she led in Darfur in January 2012.

In UUSC's work in Darfur, there is a very conscious effort to connect imams and women leaders. Why is that important?

The role of the imam is critical: without the imam's endorsement of an attempt at change, people will resist it. They'll say it's against our religion or it's against our culture. But people are willing to reconsider cultural values if compelled by their religious teachings. So when an imam says something, it holds a lot of power. But women mostly learn from other women. So if women leaders understand and feel strong enough to use religious teachings, and if the imam gives them credibility, then women have a lot of power.

Women are actually the most influential people in a society because, as mothers, they're passing down the social norms. The work can't be effective without a partnership between women leaders and imams. And the men also have to be on board as role models and stand beside the women — because it isn't safe for women alone to be change agents. So, ultimately, everybody has to work together.

What does it mean for Darfur that we have come to a point where we can do this kind of work?

It's exciting. It's an opportunity for people to have a better quality of life — men and women, because men are also oppressed. Men and women can have lives in which they can fulfill their potential and have relationships that are richer, healthier, and happier. This work opens the possibility for families, communities, and society to grow. And of course, we know that when women are well in a society, all kinds of good things happen.

As you reflect on the work you've done with UUSC in Darfur, what stands out to you?

People's passion and resilience. With few resources and a few new tools — tools they already had, they just didn't know it — they're willing to do huge things. They have such determination, passion, and optimism and are taking on really huge cultural changes.

How has this work in Darfur influenced the work you are doing on these issues in the United States?

It's definitely inspired me, because if people in Darfur can make these changes, we certainly can. It's broadened my understanding of the complexity of gender-based violence. It has also reminded me that boys and men are also victims and sometimes need to be empowered as much as women. Cultural systems don't give wiggle room to either gender: both need to be empowered. This experience has reaffirmed my commitment to this work.


Understanding What Created the Horn of Africa Famine

The famine in Somalia is like a firework, lighting up a massive, slow-burning food crisis in Eastern Africa and the Horn of Africa. This famine did not happen over night. Its causes are deeply intertwined — the impact of donated food on small farmers with the expanding desertification of the Horn of Africa and growing arid areas in Kenya and Ethiopia as deforestation and climate change turn arable land into arid land. As land grows more arid, the resulting loss of grazing and water for nomadic herders creates conflicts between clans. Those conflicts deplete people's wealth and animals — this makes them more vulnerable. As people have to sell their remaining animals, they get low prices for them while food prices climb. The global oil market results in higher fuel costs which drives grain prices up at a time when people have less money. The changing climate pattern is triggering this shift throughout much of Eastern Africa and the Horn.

People are resilient on the whole — particularly people who make a living on the margins, as do many of the nomadic herders and small farmers in Southern Somalia now affected by the drought. Governments in Kenya and Ethiopia have the capacity to measure rainfall, acquire food stores, regulate food prices, provide distribution mechanisms — in short, mitigate some of the successive shocks that people are feeling.

What moved this food crisis to famine in Southern Somalia however is the combination of lack of governance and conflict, in the context of the so-called global war on terror. Somalia has not had a functioning government since 1991 when Siad Barre was driven out of power. Behind the headlines over the last decades, there have been numerous power struggles in which the West has interfered, exacerbating struggles and divisions. The U.S. backed an Ethiopian invasion in 2006 to throw out a group of Islamists called the Islamic Courts of Union and supported the Transitional Federal Government in Mogadishu which now controls 60% of the capital with the help of UN troops. The Ethiopian invasion radicalized sectors of the ICU which formed the Al Shabaab, the group now in control of Southern Somalia. Al-Shabaab has ties to Al Quaeda and their aim is to establish an Islamic state. They are suspicious of the UN and large western aid organizations. Relationships between Al Shabaab and the relief organizations have deteriorated in the last several years resulting in aid being gradually diminished, leaving people with even less support on the ground. Now in the midst of escalating famine, many relief organizations are still reluctant to enter the area and Al-Shabaab is not clear about whether they will allow them access.

As a result, villages in Southern Sudan are emptying out and Mogadishu is filling with families who have walked hundreds of kilometers to find food and aid. Their stories are illuminating the reality we don't see. According to Concern Ireland, every family that has arrived in Mogadishu has lost at least two children on the way, and the ones who have lost two are considered the lucky ones.