Four change leaders combating gender-based violence in Africa and India

From left to right: Priye Diri, Josephine Mwende, Innocent Madonsela and Sagina Walyat. Photo provided by Bidisha Saikia, used with permission.

By Bidisha Saikia

There are several kinds of gender-based violence, spanning emotional, psychological, sexual, and physical dimensions. Examples include female genital mutilation (FGM), honor-based murders, forced and early marriages, as well as sex trafficking. Among these, intimate partner violence (IPV) and non-partner sexual violence (NPSV) are two of the most common forms of violence experienced by women — and globally, about one in three women has experienced, at some point in their lives, either or both of these two forms of gender-based violence. 

The “16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence,” led by civil society and supported by the United Nations, is a globally recognized campaign that spans from November 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, to December 10, Human Rights Day. During this crucial period, individuals, organisations, and communities unite in a collective effort to raise awareness and combat gender-based violence. The campaign is a powerful platform to advocate for policy changes, promote educational initiatives, amplify the voices of survivors, and engage in diverse activities that challenge societal norms. 

Over the past few years, four change leaders under the Nguvu Collective have been actively involved in this campaign, tirelessly fighting against various forms of violence across Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, and India.

From Kenya, Josephine Mwende Kamene's petition underscores the urgent need for equitable healthcare access for women during pregnancy and childbirth, shedding light on the grim reality of obstetric violence. Mwende is the founder and chief executive officer of AbleRise Africa Society, a community-based organization that challenges societal norms and advocates for inclusivity and equality. Obstetric violence encompasses various forms of mistreatment, disrespect, and abuse experienced by women during childbirth, constituting a profound violation of their rights and dignity. A single mother, Mwende was born with cerebral palsy and faced discrimination from various hospitals when the time came to deliver her baby. 

Last August, Mwende met with the cabinet secretary of the Ministry of Health, Susan Nakhumicha, to present her campaign. Her experience and recommendations were considered when the cabinet secretary for health, Susan Nakumicha, appeared before the Senate on November 1, to highlight the Ministry's plans to boost healthcare access for individuals with disabilities. So far, Mwende has been at the forefront of her campaign championing disability-inclusive healthcare, taking other bold steps such as writing opinion articles on the matter and speaking on local and national radio shows, television special features and interviews. 

The 16 Days of Activism campaign goes beyond raising awareness by encouraging tangible actions at both the individual and community levels. Human rights lawyer and activist Sagina Walyat, from India, has been advocating for legal rights among rural and urban women for the last few years. To provide support to women facing distress, the Indian government established various helpline numbers for women, primarily 181 and 1091, to ensure easy access to assistance. However, over the years, there has been a noticeable decline in the number of calls made to the women's helpline number 1091, as indicated by Delhi Police data, in comparison to statistics from 2021. Among the reasons they give for the fall off after 2021, though, is that domestic violence rose during COVID-19, and they have increased mobile patrols in the areas with the most problems. In response, Walyat initiated a campaign urging the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas; Housing and Urban Affairs to promote the women’s helpline numbers on LPG cylinders, which are used by 305 million households across the country.

Walyat's organisation, the Beacon of Rights, is dedicated to advancing women and human rights, aiming to make a social justice impact with a focus on education and sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) for the rural women population. The organisation also seeks to shrink the gender legal literacy gap in India with pro-bono legal awareness and assistance. “These 16 Days of Activism, I call for a world where everyone, regardless of gender, can live free from violence and discrimination,” said Walyat.

Priye Diri, from Nigeria, is a young feminist filmmaker and development expert with experience in sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) response and prevention. She has been running a campaign asking to waive medical bills for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence in the capital, Abuja. She says, “As an SGBV first responder, every day, I listen to stories of women and girls who have survived SGBV; as I walk with them to access justice, I have seen the cost of justice and the lifelong impact it can have on lives.” Diri has engaged the National Primary Healthcare Development Agency to deliver her petition and discuss how over 30,000 primary healthcare centers in Nigeria can ensure confidentiality and care when dealing with GBV cases.

Diri is currently working on a short film which she plans to launch before the end of the year, highlighting the burden on GBV victims in Nigeria. She plans to engage the Ministry of Women Affairs, and the Ministry of Health in the capital, Abuja. The US government recently recognised her work by awarding her the Mandela Washington Fellowship, founded by President Barack Obama in 2010.

From Johannesburg, South Africa, 34-year-old  Innocent Madonsela was shocked at the existence of Funelani nganeno/Ukuthwala (Zulu language for a form of “forced marriage”) in the Nkomazi local municipality in the eastern province of Mpumalanga. This is a practice where minor girls are kidnapped and raped by older men, who then take the girls to their parental homes with an offer of marriage in exchange for a token fee. Both families agree to the informal, illegal, undocumented “marriage” without the consent of the girl.

“This tradition is not only happening in my village; recently, there have been reports that children as young as 10 have fallen pregnant in the last year, with KwaZulu-Natal recording 26,515 pregnancies of young girls aged 10 and 19 in eight months,” said Madonsela. He has helped over 20 young girls in the past 12 months. His efforts include rescuing some girls and providing them with safe spaces. He has acted as a village ambulance, transporting girls to the nearest hospital (64 kilometers/40 miles away) during life-threatening births and pregnancy complications. He wants to ensure help reaches every vulnerable girl and that’s what drove him to start an online petition urging the Human Rights Commission to intervene and protect young girls and stop this practice.

Madonsela’s campaign has made this advocacy a national issue, and he has engaged several stakeholders, including the South African police, the Human Rights Commission, the Gender Commission, and the Council of Traditional Leaders, to put an end to this practice and teen pregnancy in Nkomazi. His petition is supported by more than 10,500 people, and it keeps growing. 

In a remarkable convergence of purpose, Josephine Mwende, Sagina Walyat, Priye Diri, and Innocent Madonsela find themselves united despite geographical distances, their common ground being the formidable force of change they embody as leaders within the Nguvu Collective. Bound by a shared commitment, these change leaders exemplify the transformative potential inherent in the collective pursuit of empowerment and social change. 

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