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10 January 2018

Coping with reduced scope for action

How do human rights defenders carry out their work in countries that are politically unstable or weakened by conflicts? Their criticism of governments is often met with repression and a right to protection may not exist or be enforced. Staff at women’s rights organisations are particularly affected by this. What can they do when the scope they have for action has been restricted? And how can they continue to work in spite of this?

For small organisations it is especially important to know and be known by other similar organisations, since realising they are not alone in their struggle to achieve women’s rights can strengthen the organisations and their staff. Additionally, they might need to or want to work more closely together in future to overcome difficulties.

Assisting women’s rights organisations to network

One example of how medica mondiale has contributed to increased exchange is the regular symposia held in the African Great Lakes region. Recently, one of these was attended by 50 people from more than 20 organisations in the medica mondiale project countries Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. The two-day symposium was held in Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi. Participants included staff from projects which receive funding from medica mondiale, such as SEVOTA from Rwanda or FOWAC from Uganda. Smaller organisations from the region were also invited. In lectures and group sessions, the symposium participants presented practical aspects of their work and answered each other’s questions, such as: What difficulties do you experience locally during your human rights work? What do we need to pay attention to if we want to avoid repression?

Empowerment groups despite repression

“The focal point of the meeting was the work with empowerment groups,” explains Inga Neu, Trauma Officer for the Great Lakes region at medica mondiale. “These are groups where women who have been affected by violence can learn to trust each other again and speak about their problems and experiences.” A youth group from DR Congo reported on the difficulties they were having with local authorities, which threaten the very existence of their group. In order to avoid those people, the group now meets in a church. This provides them with a protected space where they can, for example, talk about reproductive health. If they are travelling somewhere to raise awareness of women’s rights among girls, they will pretend to be working on a school project, which means the local authorities will leave them in peace. Inga Neu assesses the event as being very positive:

“The atmosphere was very lively, there was a lot of bustle, conversations and sharing. Many participants went home feeling stronger and can hopefully carry over some of this fresh strength into their work.”

The next symposium is planned for the coming year.