Gender, Power and Commitment: SASA Uganda – a community mobilisation approach for prevention of gender-based violence

November 14, 2013

Immediately, my eyes ran to a large poster at the front of the room, the writing in bold lettering read: ‘How Strong Are Women?’  Posed in the form of a question, it seemed to explore a rhetorical response, one I assumed, that would be deliberated over the course of the next couple hours.


At an event on October 10th, 2013, hosted by The Irish Gender Based Violence Consortium, research findings and intervention results of SASA!, a community mobilization approach for the prevention of violence against women and HIV were discussed.  The pilot study and intervention, based in Kampala, Uganda, was presented on by Lori Michau co-director of the local non-profit organization Raising Voices and Dr. Charlotte Watts of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.  Under the collaboration of these two institutions, in partnership with Makerere University and the Centre for Domestic Violence Prevention, Kampala, the study assessed the impacts and overall effectiveness of implementing the SASA! approach in four  local communities.  In particular, it explored the effect of change at the community level to alter the attitudes and behaviours towards gender-based violence and existing social norms.  ‘One of the hardest things is to change attitudes’ Michau said, when referring to the incremental and systematic approach taken by the study to implement change.  The strength of the findings presented, as well as the optimism to evoke such change, spoke to the benefits of research collaborations and the potential of community focused intervention and activism.


From Violence to Power


Behind the SASA! intervention is four phases, each a component of the acronym itself: Start, Awareness, Support and Action.  Within each stage the focus has been shifted from violence towards an emphasis on power: power within, power over, power with and power to.  This shift in dialogue is meant to positively impact the intervention processes, bringing in a level of involvement and acceptance from both men and women within the community.  Local individuals are trained as activists and learn to engage effectively with fellow community members, to discuss shared experiences of power and inequality, supporting each other through the process of recognition, awareness and prevention.   ‘We could and should be talking about power, and that will help us when dealing with violence’ Michau echoed.  For a community mobilization effort it is important to put things in terms which everyone can relate to and understand.  As such, identifying power as both the problem and the solution can enable people to critically reflect on the dynamic roles, relationships and experiences of power in their day-to-day lives.


Breaking the Cycle


The informed methodology presented by SASA! focuses on the equal involvement and empowerment of women and men.  In situations where men and women experience unequal roles of power there is an acceptance and perpetuation of gender-based violence.  In order to break this cycle of inequality it is necessary to engage with everyone involved, particularly with the inclusion of men and boys.  At no point should there be the pitting of women and men in opposition or the perpetuation of further imbalances within the discourse of gender-based power dynamics.  The intention is not to place blame or point shame. It is directed at the entire community, building support, strengthening households, and working together to create change.


Bringing the Message Home


At a certain point during the question and answer period, it was asked about implementing the program within communities in the Global North.  The notion was met with an embarrassing silence, and the question quickly averted.  Given the nature of the SASA! approach, which emphasized the equal involvement of men and women, one might have noticed the striking absence of men in the room; two, plus the videographer, in attendance.  The remaining 50 attendees were all female.  Where was the emphasis on equal participation here? In what way was this indicative of the Irish and International Development audience?  In an environment where the focus of gender based discourse is concentrated on female presence and empowerment, this juxtaposition of an absent male counterpart was a bit unsettling.


Returning back to the question on the poster, one only needed to look around at the female representation in forms of various NGOs, educational institutions, cultures and professions.   There was no question of the strength which these women empowered.  In the end, I was not left to ask ‘How Strong Are Women (or Men for that matter)’, but rather ‘Why must our strengths be informed by our gender?’  In light of the research presented, what struck me most was how much stronger we could be together.  The power we have is with each other, not, in opposition to each other.  Yet, as I stared back at the female dominated room, I felt a stark sense of missed opportunity.


Bianca van Bavel

Key Correspondent

IFGH Student Outreach Group – Trinity College Dublin Representative

[email protected]



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