Interview with Esther Dingemans by Inspirational Women Series
Esther Dingemans is the director of the Dr. Denis Mukwege Foundation, based in the Netherlands, with a branch in Switzerland. Together with world renowned activist Denis Mukwege, the organization puts rape as a weapon of war and conflict related sexual violence on the international agenda and lobbies for scaling up support for survivors. Previously, Esther worked for 15 years in war affected countries in Africa, the Middle-East and Latin America, developing and implementing gender-based violence prevention and response projects. Working for UN agencies and international NGOs, she led major capacity building projects for staff and communities and has written several published training guides on gender-based violence in conflict.
What is your background?
My educational background is a combination of Development Studies and Pedagogies; the ‘science of child rearing’. Throughout my studies, I tried to focus on refugee issues and I wrote my Master’s thesis in Egypt, conducting a study on the psychosocial well-being of Sudanese refugee children. This is when I became more aware of the particular ways women and girls are affected by war. Since that time, I have mostly lived and worked in conflict-affected countries, managing programs aimed at the prevention of gender-based violence, including Ivory Coast, Guinea, Sudan (Darfur), Liberia, Sierra Leone, Syria and Colombia.
You are the Director of the Dr. Denis Mukwege Foundation, a foundation that aims to end rape as a weapon of war. What motivated you to join the Dr. Denis Mukwege Foundation and can you tell us about its programs and services for survivors of sexual violence?
It was first and foremost the work of Denis Mukwege and his team in DRC that inspired me to take on this job. Panzi Hospital and Panzi Foundation in DRC are involved in ground breaking work. By providing survivors of sexual violence with quality holistic support that includes medical care, psychological support, legal aid and socioeconomic programs, they can become agents of change within their families, communities and even within the larger society – breaking the silence and ending stigma. This is something I never really achieved before with international humanitarian programs, where services were offered in isolation, and many survivors only received medical treatment and did not benefit from such a complete package of care. With the Mukwege Foundation, we want to implement the good practices from DRC in other countries by supporting community-based projects where they are still needed and promote this successful holistic healing model globally. In addition, together with Dr. Mukwege, who is a world leader in this field, we work to influence government decision-makers and others to do what is needed in terms of policies and practice, and ultimately, ban rape as a weapon of war and other forms of sexualized violence in conflict.
Previously, you served as a Training Advisor for sexual and gender-based violence at UNHCR in Geneva Can you share some of your experiences and some of your most valuable takeaways?
An essential part of the training is becoming aware of one’s own beliefs and of the fact that, with efforts from everyone, things can change. Gender-based violence is rooted in deeply entrenched norms, beliefs about how women, girls, men and boys should behave. As long as people believe that girls have less value then boys, or that women are a ‘possession’ of men, or that all men should be strong and dominant, gender-based violence has a fertile ground to flourish. Change is usually gradual, but does not have to take generations. For example, a local organization in Senegal, Tostan, conducts very impressive community-based work, which as a result has led to several communities abolishing female genital mutilation, a practice/tradition that is largely embedded within the culture. On the other hand, sometimes change is extremely slow. In Switzerland women were not allowed to vote until 1971, and the country still has a low rate of women participation in the government. If we are not watchful, and fail to critically examine our ideas about women and men, progress can be reversed. Look at the rise of femicide incidents in Italy – a clear sign that something is wrong.
Another important part of training is learning practical skills; learning about what survivors of sexual violence might need in terms of services, where to access them and about the extremely important factor of compassion and non-judgmental attitudes. The latter is so important – it remains hard to grasp how negatively survivors of sexual violence are treated, in court, by police, by health workers.
Can you tell us about some of the other unique programs you’ve developed related to eradicating gender-based violence with Save the Children, UNICEF, UNFPA, and the International Rescue Committee?
I was very impressed by the outcomes of the programs we set up with Save the Children in Darfur – thanks to the immense commitment of local women. In a community/society where it was accepted that a survivor of rape would marry the perpetrator, I really believe they successfully challenged this norm and little by little created more supportive attitudes for victims of rape. They set up an entire network of women helping those who had been raped, and the level of solidarity achieved was immense. There was also a program in Syria. women provided such compassionate care for refugees coming from Iraq, both men and women who had been subjected to the most horrendous sexual violence as a means of torture. Another project that worked really well involved Liberian and Sierra Leonean girls. They had been raped, were often excluded from their community, and had very little self-worth. Many of them were sexually exploited in the refugee camps. With Save the Children we set up a program, whereby they learned how to read and write, received leadership training, learned about hygiene and became professional child care workers, taking care of their own babies and those of others. Gradually, their self-confidence grew and they proudly took up their role in community life.
What are some lesser known issues related to gender-based violence against women and children in conflict areas?
I think we don’t always realize how extreme the violence is, and how devastating the consequences are for victims. We speak about statistics, but sometimes forget that what we are really talking about are people’s lives and the immense suffering behind the numbers. When rape is used as a weapon of war, bodies are literally torn, and families broken. All aspects of life are affected, sometimes for generations to come. Victims feel as if their dignity and self-worth have been ripped away, they live in constant fear, are unable to sleep, suffer from nightmares, lose relationships, friendships, jobs. Research shows, for example, that women in Bosnia and Herzegovina are still immensely suffering from the sexual violence they suffered more than 20 years ago – many still taking medication to numb the physical and psychological pain.
Most of us know that all types of gender-based violence increase during times of conflict – due to many factors, such as poverty, lawlessness, family breakdown, and its use as a tool of war. But what we forget is that when the conflict ends the violence persists. Often victims have no recourse to justice and perpetrators go unpunished. Former soldiers or militia, often victims of violence themselves, continue to use violence, especially in the absence of psychological and reintegration program. When sexual violence goes unpunished, children and young adults believe that sexual violence is acceptable, and regressive customs and practices that uphold gender inequality reappear. In such circumstances, ‘civilian rape’ and other types of gender-based violence are common. Therefore, the emphasis on justice, healing, and reconciliation cannot be underestimated.
In your opinion, what are the essential ingredients and processes involved with developing effective prevention and response strategies to gender-based violence?
In my view it is essential that survivors are involved in shaping the programs. Who else knows better about what works and what doesn’t? The whole discussion about terminology, for example; is it appropriate to use the word ‘victim’ or do we say ‘survivor’? I’d say: ask the individuals involved in their specific context, and you’ll definitely get an answer. Within the Mukwege Foundation, we really want to focus on the voice of survivors; their stories, their role in creating collective memory, their opinions about program, their solidarity, and their active role in advocating for change.
Working with existing systems is also essential. Unfortunately, many of the programs I contributed to no longer exist because funding ran out or humanitarian access was blocked. This shortcoming is one of the reasons why I am so impressed with the work of Dr. Mukwege and Panzi in DRC. Founded during the height of the conflict, their survivor care services are in fact of better quality than I have seen elsewhere. The services are integrated within the public health system, and therefore much more sustainable.
If I can mention one more element: don’t forget the men. First , men and boys are also subjected to sexual violence, such as rape, sexualized torture and sexual exploitation. But they are also affected by the extreme violence their beloved once have had to face and whom, from their point of view, they ‘failed to protect’. They also need psycho-social support to help them deal with their own war experiences, and learn about how notions of dominant masculinities are linked to persisting problems in their daily lives.
On a personal level, why does women’s empowerment matter to you?
I have three daughters. To think that one out of ten girls or women is raped during their lifetime, and that more than one in three women globally report having experienced physical and/or sexual partner violence makes me want to jump on the barricades. Together with my husband. But I don’t think empowering is the right word. There is a need for all people, at all levels, to take our responsibility in challenging this status quo. To uphold and improve laws, to challenge our own norms and those of people around us – it is the business of the society as a whole to ensure that women and girls can access their rights in the same ways men and boys can, to be owners of their bodies and not to be harmed.
Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?
There are so many – different women during different periods of life. My own mother as a child, and my grand-mother when I was a teenager. She would tell me stories about survival during the war, about cycling across the country to get anti-conception in the capital city – something practically unheard of at the time. I remember she told me about sitting in a row of young women, kneeling down, all fitting their ‘device’ simultaneously. Later in life, the women I have worked with, who dared to challenge the boundaries of the space given to them as women, they are all an immense source of inspiration for me.
What are your favorite books, films, websites and resources about conflict and international development?
Many. My focus is on features related to sexual violence in conflict. The Women Under Siege website is a good source of information – journalism that investigates how rape and other forms of sexual violence are used as a tool in conflict. I read IRIN to get a broader perspective. A great movie that came out recently is the Uncondemned. It tells the heart-breaking story of a group of activists and young lawyers and who fought to make rape a war crime. I find it important to read books that provide a survivor’s perspective. For example, Comfort Woman: Slave of Destiny by Maria Rosa Henson, is a story of sex slavery in the Philippines under Japanese military rule. But all in all, it is striking how relatively few resources are available that come directly from survivors, and I strongly believe that is not due to a lack of will to have their voices heard, but due to a lack of opportunities.