Where did the idea come from?
It all started in the spring of 2010. The author Karin Alfredsson (www.karinalfredsson.se) was about to write the epilogue to her latest novel, “Den sjätte gudinnan”, which is set in India. Each of her books about Dr Ellen Elg ends with an epilogue in which she says which elements of the story are taken from real life, and quotations from various sources. According to one of the quotations that Karin read, more of the world’s women aged 15 - 44 die or are harmed as a result of partner violence and rape than die from or are harmed by cancer. The figures came from the World Bank Group.
They came as a huge shock. Karin has worked actively with questions concerning men’s violence against women for most of her life, yet she had never seen these figures. She was so outraged that she emailed the information to friends and colleagues, including Kerstin Weigl, a reporter at the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet.
Kerstin, together with a colleague, Kristina Edblom, has spent several years investigating the violence against women in Sweden which results in death. In an acclaimed series of articles (www.aftonbladet.se), they have gone through each case during the 2000s where a Swedish woman has been killed by a man she loves or has loved. The investigation is still ongoing, and Karin began to wonder if it could perhaps become global. Kerstin and Karin could travel to different countries around the world and describe how the violence is manifested. They could then write an extensive report about their journey.
When we saw what it would cost, we realised that Aftonbladet did not have the means to finance such a project; indeed, it was not certain that any media company would have that kind of money, so we decided to seek funding elsewhere.
Everything fell into place one warm summer day in July 2010. Karin called Linda Forsell (www.lindaforsell.com), a photographic journalist she had worked with previously, and invited her to become the third member of the team. She accepted.
Linda, too, has worked both with gender issues and in areas of conflict, and she came up with the key words ‘survivor’ and ‘forces for change’.
Thus, the scope of the project was widened, from the original plan to portray ten women who had been killed and the work for change in each country, to a stronger emphasis on women who had survived violence. “You can’t photograph dead women,” as Linda put it.
Who has financed the project?
On the same summer day, we contacted both SKR, the Swedish Association of Women’s Shelters and Young Women’s Empowerment Centres (www.kvinnojouren.se/english) who agreed to be the official owners of the project and were able to contribute funding, and Anneka Knutsson, Director of Development Co-operation Policy Work for Human Development at Sida, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (sida.se), who thought the project sounded exciting, and that Sida could provide financial backing.
But first we wanted to make a pilot journey so we would have some material to present, show that we were capable of undertaking the assignment, and test our methods. We wanted to go to Pakistan. This required additional financing, before Sida had had a chance to consider the matter. We rang Joakim Larsson, brother and heir of the author Stieg Larsson, at Moggliden AB (moggliden.com). He thought it over, felt the project was “in the spirit of Stieg” and promised to contribute.
What type of violence have you focused on?
We have called it “violence that affects women because they are women”, in other words, violence which is actively directed at women (which means we have not included unsafe abortions or other causes of maternal mortality) and which affects women in their role as women. General outcomes of violent crime, such as being shot or injured in connection with a robbery, have not been included.
The term is broader than the commonly used “men’s violence against women”, even though it could be said that much of the violence which is committed by women against other women is also an offshoot of men’s violence. Acts of violence in the name of honour are often committed by women in the family, and when the Egyptian girls undergo genital mutilation it is their mothers who take them to the circumcisor.
The fact is that every year, two million girls and women undergo genital mutilation, most of them with a razor blade and without an anaesthetic.
5,000 women are also killed every year for “reasons of honour”, most of them in Pakistan.
But violence against women has many other faces. It also includes human trafficking, arranged marriages, forced pregnancies, genital mutilation and systemic rape used as a weapon in war. Violence against women is one of the greatest obstacles to development and peace.
The world is not equal, and this is true of all countries:
Four of five parliamentarians are men.
Men earn 90 per cent of the world’s incomes and own 99 per cent of all property.
70 per cent of the poorest people in the world are women.
At the same time, women do 70 per cent of the unpaid work in the home.
In some parts of the world female foetuses are aborted and new-born girls are killed because boys are valued more highly. In the last 50 years, more girls have been murdered – simply because they were girls – than men have died during all the wars of the 20th century.
For young women between the ages of 15 and 29, the most common cause of death is complications during pregnancy and childbirth.
Yes; according to UNICEF almost 600,000 women die each year in connection with pregnancy and childbirth. It is as if the genocide in Rwanda were to be repeated every year, or Sweden’s population be wiped out over 15 years.
It is all connected, from a slap in the bedroom to the global situation.
But we have kept a narrower focus. We have concentrated on active violence which is directed at women simply because they are women.
How did you select the countries?
We knew that we wanted to have a broad spectrum, both rich and poor countries with different traditions, religions and social structures. We believed - and we have been proved right - that the violence exists everywhere, although the extent and the way it manifests itself varies. Another criterion was that the countries had a functioning civil society with, for example, an independent women’s movement, and that we would be able to operate relatively freely as journalists. It was also important to have access to researchers we could trust.
Our criteria meant that we discounted a number of countries which would have been very interesting, such as China, with its gender-selective abortions. It is very difficult to work freely as a journalist in China.
We also knew that we wanted to include specific types of violence, such as violence in the name of honour, female genital mutilation, rape as a weapon in war and other forms of sexual violence.
Our choice finally fell on – in the order in which we visited them - Pakistan, Egypt, Mexico, South Africa, the US, Spain, Brazil, Russia, Sweden and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. (Vid varje land länk till bildspel från landet och ev. allmän landstext). We have spent two weeks in each country, travelling extensively in some and spending most of the time in one place in others. Now that the project has been concluded we feel – not surprisingly – that many countries are missing. We have not been to East Asia, and we have not been able to focus on the violence that takes place in connection with the sex trade. If we can raise more funding, the next country on our list will be Thailand or the Philippines.
How do you make contacts in the various countries?
Linda and Karin made the first journey, to Lahore in Pakistan, in October 2010. We had received help with contacts there via Sweden’s former ambassador in Pakistan, Ann Wilkens, and the Swedish organisation PACS (www.pacs.se) which is working to put an end to slave labour and which builds schools in the districts around Lahore.
We have followed standard journalistic procedure for establishing contacts in the countries we have visited. We have prepared by reading publications from the Swedish Institute of International Affairs (länk UI), reports from the Swedish Ministry of Foreign affairs and Sida, and the sea of information available on the internet. We have emailed and asked. In some countries, Swedish organisations have had an established co-operation and been able to act as an intermediary; these included Diakonia (www.diakonia.se) in Egypt and Action Aid (www.actionaid.se) in South Africa. The NNEDV (National Network to End Domestic Violence) (nnedv.org) in the US has contact with numerous women’s shelters. In some countries we have relied mainly on personal contacts and fellow journalists. Everyone has been extremely helpful.
In selecting the women who have died, we made a conscious decision to find cases which are a few years old. It is essential that the question of guilt and what happened has been settled. Many of the deaths have received a lot of attention in the national press. We have also chosen women where close relatives or other people are willing to talk about what happened. The collaboration with these grieving mothers, daughters and friends has been both constructive and harrowing.
In some countries (Spain, Russia, Mexico and Brazil), it has been almost impossible to communicate in English. In these countries we have used local ‘fixers’, usually journalists with a wide network of contacts who have been able to help us with planning, ideas, booking meetings, and then interpreting for us when we have arrived.
Various women’s organisations have been very helpful, arranged contacts, acted as interpreters and driven us around. In many of the countries, we have been allowed into women’s shelters to follow their work, while this has not been possible in others. In Brazil, the US and Spain we were able to travel with the police, but that was not allowed in Sweden. In Russia, we were not even able to talk to the police.
Has it been dangerous?
We have never been in acute danger, but we have tried to be careful. In the townships around Johannesburg and Rio de Janeiro’s favelas it is not advisable to move around without a local ‘guide’. Ciudad Juarez in Mexico is possibly the world’s most dangerous city, and we never went out in the evenings. We postponed our trip to the Congo because of the risk of trouble in connection with the election in November 2011. Russia is not a pleasant country for women activists, nor for journalists who want to write about violence against women.
There have been times when Linda’s assessment of the danger has differed from that of Karin and Kerstin. Linda is a photographer, and to do her job she needs to get closer to what is happening. This conflict between reporters and photographers is common in our profession. Karin and Kerstin are possibly unnecessarily cautious at times. We have had our differences of opinion, but always reached agreement in the end.
Our main experience of the authorities causing us problems came in Pakistan. We did not apply for visas as journalists, as we suspected our applications would either be rejected, or that the handling process would take so long that it would be impossible to make the journey, or that we would be given a ‘minder’ who would check up on everyone we met. We entered the country on tourist visas, were careful about which authorities we contacted and did not start blogging until we had left the country. But since November 2010 we have been blogging about the project almost every day.
You present the ‘survivors’ you interviewed with names and photographs. Is this not putting them at risk?
No, we do not believe so, even though you can never guarantee anyone’s safety. We have made it clear to everyone we have met how the material will be published, and that it will be accessible to anyone who has a computer and knows where to find it.
We have not included survivors who are at risk. Some survivors are adamant that they should be presented using their correct first name, such as Vanessa in the US, who sings about her experiences, and the Swedish politician Eva-Britt, who has told her story in several newspapers. They are either not afraid, or they do not believe that this publication will make any difference. We have used their real names. We have changed the names of most of the others, so it will not be easy to find them on the internet.
We have on some occasions felt that people around the survivors, such as those working at women’s shelters, are over-cautious and over-protective, while the survivors themselves have overcome their fear. But there is, of course, a huge difference between living in a village in Pakistan where hardly anyone has access to the internet, and living in Sweden or the US.
We have not photographed people from behind or in blacked-out profile. One of the aims of our project is to show that the survivors have nothing to be ashamed of. And that there are many of them, from all social classes and of all ages. As Eszter from Sweden, who was raped, said: “I have made my mind up to stop being ashamed for something I didn’t do.”
What differences did you notice between the countries?
There are, of course, many big differences. The violence is much more widespread in countries such as Pakistan, Russia and South Africa, compared with the US, Spain and Sweden, as is the extent to which the violence is considered acceptable. In many parts of the world, being beaten is just a normal part of a woman’s marriage - and the police and the courts share that perception.
When it comes to the feeling of shame, there are national differences, but also class differences. There does not appear to be any great shame in sitting in a women’s police station in Rio de Janeiro (länk till bildspel) and describing abuse – but it is hardly the upper-class women from the Copacabana who go there. In Sweden and Spain, the greatest shame seems to lie in being a victim of violence in a close relationship. We believe that this is partly because the media show such caution. Even women who are willing to tell their story openly in Sweden and Spain are made anonymous – thereby reinforcing the perception that they have something to be ashamed of.
What similarities are there among the countries?
A common factor regarding the violence in all the countries we have visited is a need for power and control, and a fear of losing that control. Men, families, relatives – they all react with violence when the woman they want to control protests or tries to break free. In many, perhaps the majority of cases, the control is also linked to sexuality.
It is when they see they are losing this control, like an ex-boyfriend in the US, a family in north Pakistan and an ex-husband in southern Spain that they may believe they have the right to kill ‘their’ woman.
Sometimes they refer to the Koran or the Bible, claim they were high on drugs or blinded by jealousy – but these are just excuses and explanations. The majority of the world’s men do not beat their women, and most of those who do, know exactly what they are doing - and they stop when they have achieved their purpose, which is to make her obey.
What role can journalistic efforts such as yours play?
The media play a crucial role in how the problem is perceived. Much of the violence in Pakistan has come to the attention of the public through the newspapers, a fact which has in itself increased the inclination to report violence to the police. The media publicity concerning the rapes of small children in South Africa, rapes which it was believed could cure a man infected with HIV, has led to this abuse being almost totally stopped.
In Brazil and Egypt, we met the women who told their stories through the media and were able to change the legislation. Thanks to their openness and their courage, Zeinab, whose daughter Badour underwent genital mutilation and Maria Da Penha, who was the victim of two attempted murders, have had a profound impact in their respective countries. Journalism can change the world, we are convinced of that.
What would you like to see happen with your material?
We hope that it will be used by organisations and individuals who are active in the question of violence against women. The discussion material contains questions and topics for discussion which can be used in schools, in seminars, within organisations or even by individuals. Bring people together for meetings and conferences. Raise the question in trade unions, political organisations, charities and other groups. Find out what the situation is in your own country, and spread the knowledge you gain. Put pressure on the media in your country. Use social media.
Anyone who has access to a printer can print out the Do-it-yourself exhibition and hang it on the nearest wall.