Pamela Harrison

Nova Scotia to Swaziland and back again

Women join hands in the struggle against violence

Violence against women crosses all segments of society and all borders. “It’s a struggle everywhere,” says Pamela Harrison, coordinator of the Transition House Association of Nova Scotia (THANS), a CCI partner who has been working in collaboration with the Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse (SWAGAA) since 2003.

“I think what’s most amazing to me is that there are so many more commonalities than differences between us,”reflects Harrison, who has travelled to Swaziland several times to meet her SWAGAA partners. The list rolls off her tongue: “a fierce commitment to the work we do, an understanding that violence against women is a community issue, and that until men and government play a part, nothing will change.”

She describes a shared commitment to feminist principles and acceptance of cultural differences. And there are the all-too-familiar challenges in the lives of the women they serve.

There is one striking difference, though — the resources the two groups have to do their work. While THANS has had to struggle against funding cuts and other challenges, Harrison explains, SWAGAA has almost no support from the Swazi government, including at the level of leglislation and policy. Though a new constitution guaranteed women equality in February of last year, so far that’s “just words on a piece of paper.” So the partners are working hard to help create the first sexual assault and VAW legislation in Swaziland.

Women’s equality — including the right to live free of violence — is, after all, deeply connected to the overall wellbeing of a society. Phiwa Malima, program coordinator at SWAGAA, notes that “inequalities increase women’s vulnerability to poverty, which not only increases the risk of HIV/AIDS, but also leaves women more vulnerable than men to its impact.” Swaziland has the highest percentage of its population infected with HIV/AIDS in the world: 40 percent. “I am particularly struck by how HIV/AIDS has deteriorated women’s rights in Africa even more,” says Harrison. “As long as there is inequality — in education, rights, access to services, violence against women will continue.” It is a truly vicious cycle in which violence makes women, girls, even infants vulnerable to HIV infection, which in turn can make them more vulnerable to violence.

It’s why supporting SWAGAA’s work is so important.

On Harrison’s visits she also grew concerned with the women she saw working on the front lines. “Most come from abuse themselves and there’s been very little room for healing in their own lives. There’s no care for these caregivers, and they are burning out.” It’s just one of the gaps Harrison hopes the ongoing partnership with THANS can help begin to fill.

Harrison says the partnership (which has included two Nova Scotia to Swaziland placements and two Swaziland to Nova Scotia) has been wonderful for THANS: “Working with SWAGAA allowed us to gain some perspective, and to celebrate our accomplishments, instead of mourning our failures. So often we in the North see ourselves as ‘helping’ the South, when in fact there is knowledge and experience transfer both ways.” Not only have the two groups been able to validate each other’s work and skills, THANS is looking at adopting a program for young girls that comes directly from Africa.

“For me personally I feel so privileged to have been involved in this partnership. It’s lifechanging to work with people on the ground, to meet them, to know their children, to visit their homes,” Harrison says. She is eager to keep building these bridges and to keep the learning and growing travelling both ways; she has seen how enriching it is for everyone involved.

 

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