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Annah Sango

As a young woman, I worry about my future and so do my peers. Being part of an amazing team that explored and scrutinized the UNAIDS policy guidelines was an interesting and informative opportunity. The health and well-being of young women and girls has been a topic of discussion for a long time, hence why the personal is political. Autonomy over our own bodies has been questioned more than once. Access to tools that may guarantee our health and control has been a topic no one wants to speak out about for years.

Policy makers have always known what women need, but now it is time for us to speak out openly about #WhatWomenWant. UNAIDS’ policy guidelines address some of the societal challenges young women and girls face across the globe; one girl’s story is embedded in the lives of a million others. Prevention for young women and girls will only be possible if we embrace comprehensive sexuality education and allow ourselves to open our eyes to the realities in our communities. When young women and girls are equipped with knowledge and skills, they can make safer and healthier choices. A comprehensive package that is tailor-made for the ever-evolving group of young women and adolescent girls is one of the many ways we can achieve prevention for all. It takes coordination and collaboration to drive change.

As a working group member, I’ve been touched by the amazing views young women and girls share. Hearing them state their needs clearly shows me that we have been invited to the table, but so often have not shared in the decision making. We have so much potential, energy and many ideas; an untapped resource that can be of great use in deciding health policies over our own bodies. We acknowledge the gains but we still can do more - until we ensure equitable access to comprehensive health services and education, until we can exercise our rights, all of our gains may slowly be forgotten.

HIV prevention is everyone’s responsibility. #WhatWomenWant is to keep girls in school, and ensure they stay in school. We want to promote menstrual health and access to SRH services. We need innovative ways of empowering young women and girls. We need to ensure young women and girls can afford to be safe, healthy, well and that they can truly take charge of their future. We need progressive policies on health and systems that support emancipation of young women and girls. We need to stop making excuses when it comes to health. We can make no compromises on quality of life.

Nyasha Museruka

As a young woman, I’ve engaged in activism and advocacy on certain issues to help get disability rights recognized and acted upon. It is my pleasure to share my perspective, expertise, experience, observations and recommendations to improve HIV prevention for adolescent girls and young women (AGYW), especially people with disabilities (PWD). I am pleased to be a member of the #WhatWomenWant Working Group. It has given me an opportunity to hear other adolescent girls and young women with disabilities share their experiences, and identify gaps for advocacy in prevention of HIV. I would like to extend my gratitude to the ATHENA Network for this splendid opportunity and for being inclusive. 

I am a young woman with an impairment. I have spinal scoliosis which limits some of my activities; thank God I have a very supportive family. I was sent to school and completed my diploma in education 2 years ago, which has empowered me and built my confidence, so that today I can stand and fight for my rights and those of fellow PWDs. I have been working with the National AIDS Council and NGOs for PWDs, which have created platforms for me to learn a lot, especially about HIV/AIDS. I have been trained as a peer educator and counselor on various issues surrounding HIV. 

As a young woman with a disability, I see many barriers to HIV prevention among us. Most people don’t understand disabilities, hence why our needs as a group are generalized. People often confuse our impairments, e.g. if someone has a physical disability, people will assume they are mentally challenged as well. At some point, I visited a clinic and inquired for STI screening services and the nurses there looked at me in astonishment as though I might have been mentally disturbed to ask for those services since I’m disabled. This brings me to my next barrier…

There are misconceptions around women and disability, and this has hindered us from getting services which address our needs. Some policy makers and even service providers think that we are asexual or that we don’t get into relationships at all. There are no policies to protect our rights to sexual and reproductive health (SRH) and HIV services. We have the United Nations Convention on the Rights of PWDs (UNCRDP), though since it has not been adopted here in Zimbabwe you cannot sue if there are no policies that talk of our rights as PWDs. Our country’s constitution does not clearly state the health rights of PWDs, so no one is held accountable if AGYG with disabilities don’t access services. 

There is a barrier of communication as well. Service providers such as police officers, teachers, nurses and doctors are not well conversant with sign language or how to handle clients with visual impairment. Information catering to this specific group doesn’t exist, especially IEC materials. Implementers complain that making these materials is costly, and sometimes it’s a matter of ignorance to their part. AGYW with disabilities are abused sexually due to the language barrier, and their cases die a natural death. 

 Infrastructure in Zimbabwe is not accessible to PWDs especially where we want to get services. I wonder why the government approves plans to be built if wheelchair users cannot access those buildings. You can find a testing service center located the 2nd floor with no lifts, which means that person is going back without help. 

I strongly feel that if these barriers are addressed, HIV prevention can target AGYW with disabilities. Policy makers should not assume that services are reaching us, because not all AGYW with disabilities are out in the open. More must be done to assess if we are being reached. People and policy makers should know that it is vital to include us in programming as we have among us those who are infected - we are also sexually active.  

Dorcas Agalo, Respekt

I am a finalist medical student in Kenyatta University in Nairobi, Kenya.
During my free time, I work with a group of volunteers composed of medical and public health students in a project called RESPEKT (Reproductive and Sexual Health Program for Kenyan Teenagers). This is a partnership project between Medical Students’ Association of Kenya (MSAKE) and International Medical Co-operation Committee Uland (IMCC-Uland). The project started to develop in 2014, and by 2015 volunteers from both MSAKE and IMCC met to brainstorm; that was when RESPEKT was born. 

Our goal is to ensure quality education on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) among teenagers aged 13-19 years in Kenya by facilitating a series of workshops at undeserved secondary schools in five different Kenyan counties. The project applies a rights-based approach to combat the harmful cultural practices, gender-based violence and lack of relevant and accurate information on SRHR among youth in Kenya. 

In Kenya, young boys and girls are unable to access sexual and reproductive health services despite of their right to do so as entrenched in the Kenyan constitution. Young women and children continue to suffer in the hands of health-care practitioners and quacks who claim that female genital mutilation done in the hospital is safer than that done in traditional settings. Unmet sexual and reproductive health needs among the youth contribute to unwanted pregnancies, STIs and HIV infections. Teenage pregnancies are associated with adverse outcomes such as unsafe abortion, obstructed labour, fistulas and death. 

 Efforts to address these issues have been made by the national government, through the creation of the Adolescent Reproductive Health and Development Policy in 2003 aimed at improving reproductive health and the quality of life among Kenyan adolescents and youth. However, the drive to secure adequate awareness and education on SRHR has faced a range of cultural and religious opposition. 

Accommodating these challenges, we seek to provide quality education on sexual and reproductive health and rights through a series of workshops that emphasize the creation of safe spaces. A safe space is a non-judgemental and friendly environment where we can have open discussions and our opinions are respected. Through the project we have been able to address issues of menstrual hygiene; harmful cultural practices like female genital mutilation; the importance of safe sex practices and abstinence when possible; and early or unplanned pregnancy. Creating safe spaces has made students feel comfortable and enthusiastic in leading discussions. One girl remarked after a session on early pregnancy, “I was like a blind person before you came to our school but now I see clearly”. 

Issues surrounding sexuality and reproductive health are difficult to talk about with our parents and teachers because it is largely considered taboo. Young boys and girls are therefore more receptive to us compared to older people, and we take advantage of this to impact youth one at a time. Our long term goal is to raise a generation of young women and men who will take charge of their health and secure the right to health for all around them. The workshops have also given us an opportunity to mentor and encourage young boys and girls in school to strive towards making it to college and a better life. 

If you’d like to learn more about our work, or see how to get involved, please visit us on Facebook and share our efforts across your networks.

Shruti Kapoor, Sayfty

According to UN Women, 1 in 3 women face sexual harassment during the course of their lifetime. In India, a woman is raped every 22 minutes. Crimes against women and girls are rampant. Rape, sexual violence, and street harassment have become the norm and yet women and girls choose to stay silent and not speak up against violence due to the social stigma attached to these crimes and the process. A lengthy and complex judicial system serves as a deterrent. Encouraging women to speak up against all forms of violence, report it and break the shame associated with it is important if we want to end gender based violence. 

Gender violence, in all its forms, is a broad and complex social problem in India. The horrific 2012 gang rape of Jyoti Singh that captured global media attention deeply impacted me, highlighting my own experience with sexual harassment during my first 20 years of living there. A solution had to be found. I no longer wanted to be a silent bystander; I wanted to enable Indian women to take charge of their own safety. That’s when I decided to start Sayfty, an organization that educates and empowers women and girls against violence. 

At Sayfty, our vision is to make the daily lives of millions of Indian women safer by empowering them to take a stance against gender violence. I believe a woman’s safety is her birthright and our programs and initiatives are designed to ensure that she feels safe and free. We educate women and girls about the issue of violence against women in society by using digital media and storytelling. Our online campaigns empower communities by making women and girls more aware of their rights, helping them identify and speak out against gender violence. We provide safe spaces (online and offline) for open conversations with boys and men to bring about a fundamental shift in how violence against women is perceived. Our free self-defense workshops instill confidence in women and girls to protect themselves while encountering perpetrators. 

Working on these issues has it’s own set of challenges. Some of the biggest we’ve faced over the last 3.5 years include: 

Changing mindsets rooted in age-old practices and customs: We advocate for the right of women and girls to be safe. This often conflicts not only with patriarchal norms and rules, but also with women’s own internalized beliefs of that patriarchy. How do we convince women that their safety lies in their hands too; that they must be aware, alert, and equipped to protect themselves? 

Teaching and instilling respect for women at an early age: The narrative on gender equality needs to change. We believe it is as crucial to create awareness in schools about violence against women and girls as it is to teach the importance of using a language of gender equality and justice. Challenging and breaking gender stereotypes needs to be encouraged early on in the lives of children. 

Inciting citizens to act: We believe change can begin with the community. Parents should lead by example; believe their young daughters when they complain about harassment, believe a friend when they confide in them about being raped. Refuse to be a silent bystander when you witness a woman being sexually harassed, help her take action.

Changing the System: Ensuring a zero-tolerance policy for violence against women at every level of governance and implementation. For the most part, women in India live in fear of violence, and they are scared. They are compelled to make small lifestyle changes because the law has failed to protect them. The current system is ineffective and inefficient, and justice for survivors is either denied or delayed.

Despite the challenges, we have been able to create impact and make a difference in how women and girls perceive their personal safety. Our self-defense workshops have had the most impact. 90% of the girls and women who participate say they would recommend the workshop to their friends. There is a renewed sense of self-confidence after the workshops. 

“During the self-defense workshop it was hard for some women to use their voice and scream loudly. When asked if they can break a brick, most of us said NO. But the trainer taught us how to! It was a very liberating experience. My confidence immediately rose. After the workshop, I felt empowered and more equipped to handle an unsafe situation. I highly recommend [this] to all girls and women.” -workshop participant

If you’d like to get involved with our work at Sayfty, there are many ways:

Volunteer with us. We are always looking for bloggers, transcribers, photographers, graphic designers and social media gurus.

Be our Voice of The Week: If you are active on Twitter, you can be our #VOTW and curate Sayfty’s twitter account for a week. Use your voice and our platform to raise awareness on women’s safety and the issue of violence against women. We now have curators from more than 30 countries in the world. Be a part of this growing community. 

Engage with us through our weekly chat on Twitter: #Sayftychat. Each week we bring on a guest to discuss a top related to women’s empowerment and safety. Join us on Twitter every Monday at 11am EST for 1 hour. 

Donate: If you like what we are doing, support us financially. We are a 100% volunteer run organization and grants and donations help us do the work we do. You can also sponsor a self-defense workshop for women and girls. 

ElsaMarie D’Silva, Safecity

I am ElsaMarie DSilva, Founder & CEO of Red Dot Foundation (Safecity). We are based in India; we crowdsource personal experiences of sexual violence in public spaces, then collate and visualize this data on a map as hotspots. The aim is to make public spaces safer and equally accessible to all, especially women and girls, through raising awareness on the issue of sexual violence, educating people on the legislations in effect, improving their situational awareness and engaging communities to find local neighborhood solutions. 

 We launched Safecity in response to a horrific gang rape of a young woman on a bus in Delhi in December 2012. That incident shocked everyone, including me. It opened up the conversations on the issue of sexual violence and I found that everyone I knew had a story to share which until then we had all stayed silent about. 

 In fact, even more shocking were the global statistics. UN Women states that 1 in 3 women experience some form of sexual assault at least once in their lifetime, yet 80% of women and girls choose to remain silent due to fear of bringing shame to themselves and their families, fear of dealing with the police and lengthy judicial process for justice. In my experience, the statistics in India are much higher and there is a rape that occurs every 15 minutes. 

 Over the last 3 years we have collected close to 10,000 personal stories of sexual violence from women in India, Nepal, Kenya and Cameroon, we have conducted workshops for over 9,000 people ranging from 6 - 60 years and have worked in neighborhoods across Delhi and Mumbai impacting the lives of over 10,000 families. We use the online data that women and girls share to identify factors that lead to behavior that cause sexual violence and help us think through strategies to find solutions. We partner with other NGOs, citizen and student groups that work local communities to create awareness and collect information on sexual violence. The data highlights trends and we then mobilize the community to rally around the issue using the data as the base. 

For example, our data helped us identify a hotspot in an urban slum in Delhi. It was on a main road near a tea stall. Men would loiter there while drinking their tea and intimidate women and girls with their constant staring. When asked what they wanted to change about their neighborhood the young girls said that they would like the staring to stop. So we organized an art workshop for them and they painted the wall with staring eyes and subtle messaging that loosely translates in English to – “Look with your hearts and not with your eyes.” It’s been two years since the wall mural was painted and the staring and loitering has stopped and the girls can walk comfortably, with no stress to school, college or work, without fear of being intimidated by those men. 

Changing cultures of violence is partly about policies, but it’s also about giving people a voice. By making it easy for people to share their stories and report, and thus transparently showcasing data we can hold institutions accountable. We have several examples where, on presenting the data, police have changed beat patrol timings and increased patrolling, municipal authorities have fixed street lighting and made safe public toilets available. Together with a partner organization in Nepal, we pressured the transportation authorities to issue “women only” bus licences. 

Join our movement by encouraging people to break their silence and record their story on our website: Safecity. This will help create a culture of reporting crimes of sexual violence.