The Cultural Curator

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An Interview with ‘Cause of Death: Woman’ Founder, Karin Alfredsson

Last week, I sat down with Swedish writer and journalist Karin Alfredsson, Regional Director of We Effect, at her Lusaka-based office, to discuss Cause of Death: Woman, a virtual photojournalism exhibit that Alfredsson started developing with two of her colleagues in late 2010. The project, which undertook research in ten countries around the world, takes an in-depth look into the issues of violence against women, showcasing the true stories and experiences of both survivors and murdered women.

I had initially viewed the exhibit when it was displayed at my office last month, and was so entrenched in what I saw and read that I asked Alfredsson if she wouldn’t mind me bringing the project and its content to my readers.

Through the following interview, it is my hope and intention that this exhibit will continue to reach people around the world, and that it will be widely shared and discussed by all of us with family, friends, and colleagues.

Karin Alfredsson, Founder of Cause of Death: Woman, holds up development materials from We Effect

Karin Alfredsson, Founder of Cause of Death: Woman, holds up development materials from We Effect

Cause of Death: Woman is a captivating and essential project as it sheds light on an issue, violence against women, that is so often un- or under-discussed in societies around the world, especially from the point of view of the women themselves. Tell me more about this initiative and how it got started.

As a writer, I have published five crime novels with international focus. My main character is a Swedish female medical doctor who is moving around the world and getting into trouble, because that’s necessary if you write a crime novel. Everything is based on facts and scenarios that have actually happened. The focus of these novels is always on different ways of maltreatment of women, including domestic violence, prostitution, trafficking, and illegal and unsafe abortions. At the end of every novel, I have a chapter of factual information about the situation in different parts of the world, and how I’ve chosen the backgrounds of the stories.

Then I found a fact sheet, which I hadn’t seen before, published by the World Bank. It compared different causes of death in the world, and stated that Gender-Based Violence (GBV) and rape is a greater cause of bad health than tuberculosis, malaria, traffic accidents, and war put together. I thought, what are we talking about in the world, what are the matters that society comes together to fight? If we have such a major cause of bad health and death that almost nobody’s talking about, and that is preventable, it should be easier to protect people from other people than to protect them from mosquitos. But we are not talking about this. Why aren’t we doing that?

Was this question the jumping-off point for your project?

Yes. That is how it all started about three years ago. I sent an e-mail to my friends and colleagues in Sweden, pushing this question, and contacted a friend, Kerstin Weigl, who is a reporter at Sweden’s largest newspaper. She had been conducting research on women in Sweden who were killed by their husbands or lovers. It was major research that was being published in many issues of the newspaper. I had a blue-eyed view that perhaps this newspaper would send us out in the world to do a global version of this series of articles.

They didn’t, but we decided to go ahead with it anyway. Kerstin and I found a photographer, Linda Forsell, and the three of us got together and started soliciting funding. The first backing we received came from the brother and father of Stieg Larsson, author of ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’. Stieg died before his books were published, and the inheritance is now being used for charity in different ways. The first trip that Linda and I made to Pakistan was paid for by those funds.

Then, the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA) came on board and provided most of the funding, and we also formed a partnership with the Swedish Association of Women’s Shelters and Young Women’s Empowerment Centres. With the funding we received from these organizations, and other smaller sources, we started traveling and researching.

Cause of Death: Woman Website

‘Cause of Death: Woman’ Website

You focused on ten countries in this study. What were your criteria for country selection?

The countries we chose are spread out. You can choose any country, really, as violence against women is everywhere, but we wanted to encompass different traditions, religions, levels of development, geographical locations, and we wanted it to be countries where it was possible to work as a journalist. If you just have two weeks to work in each country, you don’t want to encounter a lot of problems or have authorities on your back all the time. There was also a demand that there be a strong civil society women’s movement that could help us because we needed that to find the cases and to get to know the societies.

With all that in mind, we selected Pakistan, Mexico, Egypt, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Africa, Brazil, United States, Sweden, Spain, and Russia.

In every country, we did three things. Firstly, we met with survivors, those who had entered into a violent relationship and who had managed to get out and were not afraid anymore. Because this would be published on the web, and easily accessible, we were eager to inform the survivors that their attackers could find this exhibit online. We always asked if it was okay and if this might jeopardize their safety before going ahead with the interview and portrait session. For some of the survivors, we changed their names so they wouldn’t be easy to track, but most of them have used their real names.

The second thing we did was that, in every country, we would locate agents of change. In some countries, it was lawyers, in others, such as the United States and Sweden, it was the police force, and, in many countries, it was civil society, women’s organizations.

The third thing is that, in every country, we found the story of a woman who had been killed and, in most cases, it was something that had been highly publicized in the country, so we didn’t have to start from the beginning. It was a police investigation that we could check and go through. In South Africa, for example, it was a well-known female soccer player who was a lesbian and who was killed in a hate crime, because of her sexuality. In the United States, it was a young woman who went to college and was killed by her ex-boyfriend when she tried to leave him.

We did basic research in every country in an attempt to examine the situation for women generally, about legislation, about the possibility to check into a shelter, somewhere to hide if you’re running away, the possibility to earn your own living, different ways to secure a level of independence.

When was your official launch of the project?

The exhibit was launched in March 2012 at the 2nd World Conference of Women’s Shelters in Washington. Since then, it has been up and running on the web, it is free to access, and can be used by anyone to learn the facts and spread the word. That is really the idea of this. And the word has been spread frequently.  There have been many newspaper articles and spots on TV programs running all over Europe.

Elizabeth, 23, Survivor, South Africa

Elizabeth, 23, Survivor, South Africa

That’s an excellent summary of the project, and what has gone into developing this exhibit. You’re a journalist by trade, and I would like to learn more about what drove you to get involved with Cause of Death: Woman. There are many journalists with a vested interest in women’s rights and issues, but it takes a certain amount of gumption to get involved in this capacity, to go to six of the ten countries as you have, and to expose yourself, because you run that risk, as a journalist, of being exposed and experiencing some backlash.

The most common question I get is not ‘Is it dangerous?’ It is, ‘How do you stand all that? How can you manage to listen to all these awful stories?’ And the answer is, ‘Because it’s not that awful’. Of course, I had written the first non-fiction book in Sweden about GBV in 1979, so I had been in and around for a long time and perhaps I’m a little used to things, but when you meet these survivors who are so willing to convey their stories to the world, they are very strong. And the agents of change, what we have done is nothing compared to these individuals. The two lawyer sisters in Pakistan, they are amongst the most impressive people I have ever met, and I have now heard that one of them has received death threats by the Pakistani government. These are the real stars. It’s an incredible experience and a marvelous opportunity to meet these people, so I don’t feel depressed; I feel strengthened. I feel that what we get are marvelous stories, a lot of strength, and a lot of hope, so you never come back from such a trip feeling dejected.  Of course, we felt that we were also trying to make a change, so that also makes you strong.

Who was asking you these questions?

Ordinary citizens, not journalists. Journalists said,  ‘I wish I could have done it!’, but ordinary citizens said, ‘I couldn’t stand to listen to one of those stories first hand. I couldn’t manage to sit at the same table as these women telling their stories. I would fall into tears. I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night if I had heard all these stories.’

I asked you that question for a reason, because, having also come from a media and women’s rights background, I wouldn’t think to say, “You shouldn’t do this because how will you sleep at night?” That’s why it’s important to think in terms of who is asking the questions and in what context. 

Yes, I agree with you.

You mentioned that, in your selection process, you chose to visit countries where journalists have freedom of the press and an ability to ask those questions that they need to ask but, for example, in a country such as Pakistan, I don’t think that’s a nation where one would immediately think that freedom of the press is readily granted to journalists.

We were not officially in Pakistan. We didn’t apply for a journalist visa there, because that could have caused problems. When it comes to legal systems and government, Pakistan was the most challenging country. We could have been exposed there, but we kept a low profile. In Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, which borders the United States, it was very dangerous for everyone, and it is a very dangerous place for journalists, but we didn’t think in those terms.

I would like to hear more about how you located women who were willing to come forward and discuss their experiences with violence, and what procedure(s) you used to do this.

We used different procedures in different countries. In Egypt, for example, we focused on sex mutilation. There is one Swedish development organization, Diakonia, which has been working in this area and has been active in Egypt, so they helped us get in to meet the young girls and their mothers. They also referred us to the story of the murdered girl, who died while she was being circumcised at a hospital because she was given the wrong anesthetic. In the United States, we had help from some shelters in Kansas City, and a marvelous police sergeant outside of Washington, who assisted us with a lot of cases. In South Africa, we cooperated with ActionAid, an international organization working with hate crime offences. There’s an idea in some parts of South Africa that if a man or a group of men rape a lesbian, she will get to know what’s ‘right’. So, in South Africa, we focused on rape. We used different sources in different countries. Women’s organizations often played a role, as did, at times, lawyers, police officers, and politicians.

When you commenced your travels and research, did you have a specific number of women you wanted to interview in each country and overall?

When we came home, we had, in most cases, seven or eight stories from survivors in each country, and, from these, we selected five from every country to include in the exhibit. It was not always easy though.

What do you mean, ‘it was not always easy’?

In Brazil, for instance, we had difficulty finding the story of the murdered woman because the country’s system of law enforcement is extremely slow. There were cases that were ongoing for ten years, and, as there was no sentence, nobody wanted to talk to us, not the victims, not the police officers, not the lawyers, because it was still up and running, and it could hurt the case to say something.  Our interpreter’s psychotherapist’s’ maid’s sister had been killed by her boyfriend, so at times such at this, we went about securing our stories in a private way. In most cases though, we knew the stories of the murdered women in advance, because they had already been published and were well known.

We met with the mother of the lesbian woman in South Africa, we met with the father and mother of the college girl in the United States, and we met with the parents of the girl who had been murdered in the Congo due to witchcraft related activity. Every case was different, but it was always extremely interesting.

I can imagine. Even walking around and viewing the exhibit was fascinating for me, because you just don’t see these stories, so up close and personal, and intimately showcased, very often. Were there any figures or statistics that jumped out at you while you were undertaking this research?

One thing is that we were trying to examine was whether the situation was getting better or worse in all the countries. In some countries, we can say, it’s neither better nor worse; it’s about the same. In many countries, however, the situation is actually improving, from a very bad starting point.

In Pakistan, where you have honour killings, which was a focus in our research, if a family decides to kill a girl because she has not behaved in accordance with honoured tradition, and then, for example, they choose a brother to carry out the killing, if he is accused and the police grab him, and he confesses to the crime, the family can forgive him, and he will go free.  The legislation in Pakistan has traditionally been awful, but still, it is improving. The legislation is now being discussed, and there is a growing women’s movement in the country. Things are moving in the right direction.

There is one exception to this, a country that is getting worse in terms of its oppression against women, and that is Russia. Because Russia was, during the communist days, formally a gender equal country, and that meant quite a lot when it came to independence for women, including the right to work and a proper childcare system, even though challenges existed, women were nonetheless afforded a platform in society. This is, step by step, being removed, as the country retreats back to traditional values, demanding women to have more and more children, trying to push them back into the kitchen and, concerning matters of violence and oppression, there is no interest at all. In the beginning, just after the wall fell, a lot of support was given to civil society and to organizations working for women’s rights, but that’s more or less gone today.

Many of us researchers go into our studies with preconceived notions about what we might find. Did you have any expectations about which countries might be making positive or negative strides in the overall treatment of women? Did you think, ‘When we get to Russia, it’s going to be bad news’?

Susana, 41, Survivor, Spain

Susana, 41, Survivor, Spain

Yes, I thought so. But there were findings that surprised me, one of which was that Spain was the best country, in terms of their legislation, when it comes GBV. During the dictatorship of Franco (1936-1975), women in Spain didn’t have any rights. It was like a Saudi Arabia situation. They were not allowed to travel or apply for work without consent from their husbands, and there were many conservative rules and legislations during this period.  When democracy came, they wanted to get rid of all that. Today, they have a system of special courts for crimes against women; they have special lawyers and prosecutors, and a very high knowledge among judges.  They are in the forefront, and I didn’t necessarily expect that. I actually thought that Sweden would come out on top, but it didn’t.

Were there any other countries that surprised you with their statistics?

Another finding that I had a difficult time coming to terms with was the rape figure in South Africa. In different research that had been carried out, about 25% of South African men confessed to rape, and you start thinking, a quarter of the population?

That was a very hard statistic to swallow until, one day, we were traveling with our taxi driver, who had been with us for two weeks and who had listened to what we were doing, and he said, “well, we never talked about it as rape.” He told us that, in his village, when he was young and the girls would go to the forest to pick firewood or water, the boys would go after them.

They had a lottery system in place as to who would get a certain girl and, if you were lucky, you got the one you liked; otherwise you just took someone else. You would go after her, push her down, and take what you wanted. The girls never screamed or fought back but, he confessed, “I realize now that they probably didn’t like it and that it probably wasn’t their choice. It was something that we did and everyone accepted it. We didn’t talk about it very much, and we never spoke of it to our parents or to grown-ups.  Occasionally, when one of these girls got pregnant, then you had to identify who could be the father, and that boy would have to take responsibility. They were forced to do it and they did it, because that was the pressure from society, that if someone gets pregnant, then, as a man, you take responsibility. That was the only situation when it was discussed.”

That’s when you start to understand the figure of 25%.

I would imagine that’s also only the number of men who have confessed to raping a woman, because evidently there are different interpretations as to what rape is. So it can be very subjective too.

So it’s probably more than a quarter…

I would think so. In the same way that the number of women being abused versus the number of reported cases of abuse are two very different statistics. That’s why it’s difficult to really understand the full extent to which women experience violence. On that note, what has been the public reaction and reception to this exhibit?

Those who know about it are often very impressed, so the reception has been quite positive, but we want it to be used and that is the important thing. We want it to be displayed in schools, in meetings, and within organizations. Sweden’s largest adult education association, ABF, which arranges ‘study circles’, has been spreading the word through its channels.

What are the plans for the future of Cause of Death: Women?

In the pipeline is a theatrical play composed from the exhibit material. The first stage has been approved by the organization of theatres in Sweden, so it will hopefully be moving forward. For me, it would be very good if it did move so I could partake when I return to Sweden.

That’s right. Your current venture, as Regional Director of We Effect, has taken you away from Sweden and to Zambia for the foreseeable future. Tell me more about your work here, and how it correlates with a project like Cause of Death: Woman.

'We Effect' Website

‘We Effect’ Website

It’s not at all hard to correlate. We are working with farmers’ organizations and other civil society organizations, focusing on development in different ways in order to fight poverty and injustice. As 70% of poor people in the world are women, it’s closely connected. We are committing at least half of all the resources that we use for development work to address gender issues.

One of our main focus areas is gender equality, and we also work with rural development and housing. Gender and the empowerment of women is a very important aspect of our work, including economic development and supporting women’s land rights, all of this being closely connected to GBV. If, as a woman, you are independent and you earn your own living, then it is possible for you to leave a violent relationship or, it might not even escalate into violence because the man realizes that he can lose you.

Additionally, when we are working with female representation, in the various organizations, it means a lot. The Zambia National Farmers Union (ZNFU) has its first-ever female president, Dr. Evelyn Nguleka. I think these professional developments also contribute to women’s empowerment.

Your reference to ZNFU electing its first female president is a point that stood out to me, because I’ve had a lot of discussion around the political landscape and bringing women into that discourse. I have personally felt that we don’t just need more women in politics and positions of power; rather, we need more women in politics and positions of power who care about the livelihoods of women in their communities and further afield.

And Dr. Nguleka does. Of course, there are limits to what people can carry out as individuals, but I think she’s good for other women.

Going back to Cause of Death: Woman, what can the public do to support this initiative and others like it?

Use it. There are study materials available on the website, and if your country or community is not covered, take it upon yourself to do your own research. Ask yourself, ‘How is the situation in my community? Are shelters accessible? What is happening when GBV cases go to court? Is anyone working on the men? Whose ‘issue’ is this?’

We have tried to make the resources very practical. Aside from the study materials, there’s an interactive quiz where you can find out how much you know about these issues, and there’s a downloadable exhibit that can be put up anywhere, in a school, at an organization’s office, wherever. Spread the word. That is why it’s there.

What, if anything, have you found to be the most successful way to put an end to violence against women globally?

I think the most important thing is to include both men and women in the gender equality discourse, to make them understand that an equal society is a win-win situation. GBV is very much about power and control. What is actually happening in these relationships is that when a man feels that he is losing control or when he is afraid of losing control, that is when he commits acts of violence.

So GBV is an issue of power and control.

Yes.

But how do we get men to understand and see that there are alternative, gentler ways to assert themselves?

Most men understand this. Most men understand that this is not the way to do it.

If most men understand, then what is it that is keeping them from holding back? What are the reasons that they feel the need to express themselves in such a violent manner?

It’s that you need to work with men’s ability to express their feelings, to be able to lose control without losing face. GBV is a matter of men’s image of themselves, so it is actually very much a men’s issue, and, moving forward, it should be acknowledged as such.

*****

To learn more about Cause of Death: Woman, and to access its materials, visit www.causeofdeathwoman.com. If you are interested in learning more about We Effect, visit www.weeffect.org. All images (except for the first, which was shot during the interview) were taken from these websites. 

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