Vagina Dialogues: The power of women’s stories for social change
Ruth Ojiambo Ochieng has an infectious laugh. She reminds me to laugh heartily, especially when the work is hard. Ruth is a respected leader in the peace and security architecture in Africa. She is a dedicated and effective advocate for women’s rights, supporting women who have survived the gravest crimes to their dignity. Ruth uses storytelling as a tool for training women in peacemaking and seeking justice.
I met Ruth in 2009 in Kampala, Uganda where she is Executive Director of the Isis-Women International Cross-Cultural Exchange (Isis-WICCE). Isis-WICCE advocates for women’s rights in 50 countries through training and skills building, documenting women’s realities, and lobbying governments. Ruth and I were facilitating a workshop on ‘Documenting your AIDS Project’ with community AIDS organizations from across Africa funded by The Stephen Lewis Foundation.
Ruth interviewed at Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition
(WHRD IC) strategic conversation on Addressing Gaps in the Defense of Women
Human Rights Defenders from 2009, New Jersey, USA
I vividly remember Ruth laughing (roaring even), indignant about a Ugandan religious leader who had condemned Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues. Ugandan authorities banned American playwrite and activist Ensler’s play. Performances of her controversial play had also been banned in India and China (but to date has been successfully staged in 77 countries.)
Ruth said, “I told this priest we all do come from vaginas. Why this problem with the word vagina?” She was disappointed her government blocked performances of the play with themes of women’s experiences and empowerment (“corruption of morals” excuse), effectively also stopping dialogue, awareness raising and even fundraising for local women’s groups related to the play. Ruth’s organization and others defended the play’s value.
Press Release excerpt [Regarding Banning of The Vagina Monologues performance in Uganda]
Friday 18th February 2005
We were well aware that the use of the word ‘vagina’, a technical term, would cause discomfort amongst some, and outright hostility amongst others. Indeed, in some of the 76 countries in which the play has been successfully staged, organisers and performers have been initially subject to threats, violence, abuse and ridicule. It has spurred on some MPs in Kenya, for example, to seek amendment of the sexual offences legislation. There are many other examples in other countries, where communities have been mobilised [by the play] to deal with gender-based violence. The issues raised in the play are of such relevance and significance to us all that we will not become mired in soothing the sensibilities of a vocal few. This play needs to be performed in its entirety or not at all.
You may also be interested to know that in the Uganda production are a number of young women who have experienced sexual violence. They saw the play in Kenya, and were determined to be a part of its production here. According to one, it transformed her life, and she is slowly rebuilding it after her trauma. There are millions of testimonies the world over to that effect.
Akina Mama wa Afrika
ActionAid International Uganda
Uganda Women’s Network (UWONET)
Ruth Ojiambo Ochieng of ISIS-WICCE, Uganda, with her sign “stop militarism, give Afrikan women dignified lives”. Women in Black international conference, Italy, 2003 © Lieve Snellings.
Since 1997 Ruth has documented women’s human rights violations in armed conflict in Uganda, Southern Sudan, Liberia, Burundi and Sierra Leone. She helped form groups in Northern Uganda such as the Kitgum Women’s Peace Initiative and the Lira Women’s Initiative (since 2011 renamed Women’s Peace Initiatives – Uganda (WOPI-U). Ruth presented at a number of forums advocating for women’s involvement in peace building processes (for example, the Juba Peace Process in Northern Uganda) and has supported the practical, strategic and health needs of women post conflict. She is a member of the International Coordinating Committee of Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRD); an advisory member of the Women’s Initiative for Gender Justice in the Hague; and of Amnesty International’s committee for growth, amongst others.
At the Documentation workshop where I met Ruth, she and her colleague Harriet Musoke performed a skit of their organization’s institutional history. It was original and engaging. I was so inspired, that the next day when I had to present my summary of the prior day’s workshop, I did it in spoken word instead of a straight narrative summary. It felt risky but the participants said it was effective.
Ruth shared some important tips for documenting and storytelling:
– use simple but precise language
– tell stories in a way people, your intended audience, will listen; tell them the way they are meant to be told, with authenticity
– make them specific, detailed, relevant, accurate
– stories, if told with integrity, consent and dignity of the storyteller, can be powerful and effective for making change
– storytelling can be therapeutic but also potentially painful for the person telling the story (and hearing the story). Be sensitive to needs, including psychosocial ones i.e. respect the storyteller, manage expectations, support beyond the recording of the story and give feedback, have professional psychosocial support available for survivors and individuals working with survivors of trauma, violence and difficult circumstances.
– have skilled and sensitive translators and translation capability
– storytelling, documentation, witnessing – can be transformative for the storyteller (and person who records it); consider a transformative approach to documentation: i.e. be clear why are you doing it, for what aim, for what outcome?
– don’t rush
– work with partners, you can’t do it alone
– use technology to prevent and combat violence against women: for example, video testimony and drama, digital storytelling; teach women IT skills
Since the workshop, we’ve learned of a new tool for preventing violence and seeking justice for violence in conflict: crowdsourcing and mapping crisis information, including sexual violence, on mobile platforms such as Ushahidi and FrontlineSMS.
I’m not surprised to learn Ruth recently did a feminist writing study program at the African Gender Institute, University of Cape Town. I am grateful to have heard some of her stories and to know the sound of her laugh.
Carol Devine – Activism + Culture
Carol is a Canadian writer, researcher and humanitarian with insatiable wanderlust. For Doctors Without Borders she defended humanitarian principles in Rwanda, Sudan and East Timor. For the Diplomacy Training Program, University of New South Wales, she co-trained Aboriginal, Tibetan and Burmese youth. Carol also led the first Antarctic civilian volunteer ecological expedition. Carol is currently trying meditation, to learn more physics and get back on her skateboard. Carol can be contacted at: www.theantarcticbookofcookingandcleaning.com
Life Balance = Run. Explore. Laugh.