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Field Notes

Fighting gender violence in Dar es Salaam — 16 days and beyond

By: Brielle Morgan

Stakishari -- a subdistrict of Dar es Salaam where police officer Christina Onyango helps 20-30 survivors of gender-based violence every day.

Stakishari — a subdistrict of Dar es Salaam where police officer Christina Onyango helps 20-30 survivors of gender-based violence every day.

DAR ES SALAAM – It’s a delicate thing, asking someone to speak about their experience of gender-based violence. Especially when their quest for justice is ongoing. Especially when there’s a language barrier. Especially when they tell you through a translator or in broken English, things like:

“My husband died, but I’m still facing gender-based violence from my children (as) my land (was) also confiscated by them.”

This from a wiry, elderly woman at a legal aid centre in Dar es Salaam, where she’s fighting to get her land back.


“I was severely beaten by my husband. Some parts of my body are affected, especially my leg. I can’t walk properly.”

This from a woman laid up on a couch outside her brother’s home. She’s staying there while her divorce is processed. The objects gathered about her are telling: a pair of crutches, a newspaper story about the day her husband threw her off a balcony onto the ceramic tiles below, a stack of photos taken at the hospital, including one where she’s lying on her side, her dress pulled up to reveal a thick purple scar curving from ribs to mid-thigh.

During the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence, an annual campaign, I worked with a producer at Clouds Radio named Heri Mijinga to collect stories like these. Our aim was twofold: give voice to people who are survivors of gender-based violence (GBV), and show through the diversity of stories that GBV takes many forms – from physical and sexual to economic and psychological.

Each day during Clouds’ evening rush hour program, the co-hosts initiated a conversation about GBV, reminded listeners of the ongoing campaign, and played a story. There was plenty to justify the airtime.

In 2010, the Tanzania Demographic and Health Survey found that almost half of women aged 15 to 49 said they’d experienced physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. In 2009, the Tanzania Violence Against Children Survey (TVACS) found that nearly three out of ten girls and one out of seven boys in mainland Tanzania and Zanzibar had experienced sexual violence.

In recent years, the Tanzanian government has launched several initiatives to address GBV. We spoke with people on the front lines –  police officers, nurses, lawyers, and social workers.

Adolfina Chialo heads the Gender and Children Desk in Tanzania’s police force. She currently oversees a network of more than 400 desks, or special GBV-focused units stationed throughout the country. The desks are intended to give people a safe place to report GBV. Chialo said the goal is “to reduce the problem of gender-based violence.”

Research by the Tanzania Media Women’s Association suggests police initiatives like this are badly needed. When the NGO conducted a nationwide survey looking at GBV cases in different police stations, it found many victims gave up on pursuing justice because they felt they were being treated as criminals.

Christina Onyango is a trained nurse and gender police officer. I first met her at a 16 Days event. Her Swahili replies to my English questions were delivered with an earnestness that made me wish my language lessons were paying off faster. Later when my co-producer Heri Mijinga translated the interview, I learned that she sees 20 to 30 people affected by gender-based violence every day.

Christina Onyango is a trained nurse and police officer on the gender desk at the Stakishari Station in Dar es Salaam.

Christina Onyango is a trained nurse and police officer on the gender desk at the Stakishari Station in Dar es Salaam.

Recently I paid a visit to the Dar es Salaam station where Onyango works. Her office, a concrete room plastered with anti-violence posters, is tacked to the rear of the station like an afterthought. A few metres from the concrete steps leading to her door a broad-leafed tree offers shade to a dilapidated old bench beneath it.

This office, she said, represents one of the many challenges that keep her from carrying out her mandate to the fullest.

“The office is not good for gender because we need three rooms; one for children, one for women, and one for men. Also, transport is a challenge because you can get a report from far and you can’t go,” Onyango said.

She told me the station depends on NGOs such as Family Health International to fill gaps in funding, but there still isn’t enough.

Across the country in Mbeya, I met with another gender police officer, Mary Gumbo. Like Onyango, Gumbo loves her work. She said that while the gender police desk system isn’t perfect — citing in particular the need for more comprehensive training — it’s working. She views the recent rise in the number of GBV cases as a positive: more people are reporting because social services like the police gender desks are being better communicated.

As we poured over a list documenting the rape, neglect, and underage pregnancy cases that she filed that week, I asked how she’s impacted — as a mother of two — by this work.

“It’s hard. Several times, I cry. Let me show you some pictures, so you can understand what I’m talking about…”

She pulled an envelope from her desk drawer and spread the contents, a collection of photos, across her desk. One showed a young boy, maybe five or six years old. His hand was pink, puffy and oozing. Several fingers had seemingly melted together.

“This baby stole one egg from nearby. His mom did this. She took fire and put his hand in it. Now this mom, she’s in jail. The doctor said they can’t separate some fingers.”

Gumbo works regularly with social workers, lawyers, community leaders, and the media to counter the culture of silence facilitating GBV in Tanzania.

I asked her how she thinks the police gender desks are making a difference.

“If you abuse a mom… (her) child can go anywhere and do anything… They become a thief because they don’t have any relatives who can stay with them. Mother is the mother of the world. If there is a gender desk we can rescue that child, we can rescue that family, we can rescue the nation.”

Toward the end of the 16 Days campaign, I attended the ribbon-cutting for Dar es Salaam’s first one-stop centre. Modeled after similar centres in Zambia, one-stops are designed to offer an umbrella of essential services to victims of GBV such as counselling, legal aid, and healthcare. Tanzania launched its first one stop centre in Zanzibar in 2011. According to a 2012 report by ActionAid, it needed some fine-tuning.

“While catering for some cases of (violence against women, the centre is) overstretched and primarily focused on the needs of children.” The report recommended an evaluation be done to improve the centre’s efficiency. (I’m still working to get confirmation as to whether such an evaluation’s been done.)

While initiatives like the gender desk network and the one stop centres are helping to combat gender violence in Tanzania, advocates say more work needs doing.

On paper, Tanzania has recognized freedom from violence as a fundamental human right through various acts and international conventions. But gaps in existing legislation as well as the culture of shame and silence around gender violence combine to undermine any progress.

After the 16 Days campaign wrapped up, I asked my co-producer how listeners responded to our series of stories. He sent the following via email:

“I got many calls from different people, some complaining about gender-based violence, and others were happy (about) how we take our time to educate the society on issues (relating) to gender-based violence. Dr. Helen Kijo Bisimba, director of the Legal and Human Rights Centre, (said she) appreciates that.”

I thought about what I’d seen during the 16 Days campaign. Women balancing breastfeeding babies on their laps while battling it out in packed legal aid offices, women in t-shirts marching and hollering into megaphones, women with canes and crutches and file folders full of hospital records and property deeds.

They’d broken the silence — even if just for a moment.


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