By: Lewis Turner
“Before I didn’t know the word gender, or gender-based violence. It’s a new issue for me. Of course we live it, but in the busyness of life, we don’t focus on it.” In Amman, Jordan, Collateral Repair Project’s (CRP) training in human rights and gender provided this male Iraqi refugee, along with dozens of other community members, with exactly that focus: with the space, the information, and the tools, to think critically about gender, and to fight gender-based violence. While gender-based violence is so often swept under the carpet, its survivors shamed and stigmatized, its importance dismissed as ‘merely’ a ‘women’s issue,’ it is being put center stage in CRP’s year-long partnership with the Embassy of the Netherlands in Jordan. Through this project, CRP is engaging men and women, and male and female youth, in a quest to promote awareness of human rights and reduce levels of gender-based violence in Hashemi Shamali, the neighborhood in East Amman where CRP is based. The project includes training for community leaders on how to engage and train others in their communities on these vital questions, and is the first program in Jordan to work intensively with men and male youth on GBV.
While gender-based violence is an issue of concern for communities across the globe, refugee communities regularly experience heightened levels of gender-based violence as war, trauma, poverty, discrimination, and loss of status all take their toll on individuals and families. Refugees in Jordan are no exception to this pattern. Underlying this violence, however, is not just the context of refugeehood, but also deep-seated ideas about gender: about males and females, masculinities and femininities, that all too often are understood to excuse or justify the perpetration of violence, particularly against women and girls.
But in November 2015, coming together to find out more about gender-based violence, and to explore the prevailing ideas about gender that inform that violence, were dozens of refugees in Hashemi Shamali, East Amman. Reflecting the diversity of the local community, and of Jordan’s refugee populations, participants hailed from Iraq, Syria and Palestine, were male and female, young and old, Muslims, Christians, Yazidis and Sabians. For the past ten years CRP has been working with this community, allowing it to develop exceptionally close relations with the refugees it serves, and it was through these deep community links that the need for this project was identified. CRP provides emergency assistance, such as food vouchers and heating fuel to refugee families, as well as educational and social activities for the community. Many of the refugees that CRP serves now volunteer their time in the community center, leading many of the activities that are on offer.
The four-day sessions on human rights and gender-based violence took participants on an intense journey through the principles of identity, gender stereotypes, the differences between biological sex and socially-constructed gender, and how our ideas about gender represent the background to, and in some cases are an inherent part of, the violence that many members of the community face on a daily basis. Yet of course, every context is unique, and anywhere and everywhere the cultural, political, religious, and economic circumstances of a community inform and influence their ideas about gender. For many participants, this was the first time they had the space to openly discuss how forced migration and displacement had affected the levels of violence in their homes and neighbourhoods. How these changes have led to, or have been seen to justify, gender-based violence, and how this is affected by the Arabic cultural and social context, were central topics of conversation. These discussions enabled the refugees taking part to learn from each other’s stories and experiences, which all have their differences and similarities.
Some of the most distinctive sessions of this training shone a spotlight on the everyday practices that create, and reinforce, gender within individuals, homes, and communities. This was nowhere better exemplified than in the discussions about language. For example, many people have become accustomed to describing women as ‘girls,’ and the ubiquity of such practices inhibits our ability to critically examine them, even if people regularly feel demeaned or belittled by such labels. The men in the room heard, some for the first time, and from women in their own community, how deeply language like this affects them. Furthermore, many typical everyday uses of Arabic, which like many languages is a gendered language, effectively exclude women and girls from the stories told, and the pictures created. By writing their own stories with a focus on how gendered language was used, people began to look at their own language anew, and to create new habits; different everyday practices that can push our ideas about gender in new directions.
Setting it apart from many of the other training programs offered to refugees in Jordan, these two trainings lasted for four days each, offering a rare opportunity for refugees to delve deeper into the issue of gender-based violence. Like many of the activities available at CRP, such as workshops in self-care and women’s empowerment, dominoes nights, computer classes, and yoga sessions, the gender trainings also helped refugees break the sense of social isolation that so many feel in Jordan. It was an exceptional chance to gather as a group, to discuss shared challenges, and to resolve, as a community of national, religious and gender diversity, to work in concert towards building a community safe for all.