SASA! – Talking about Power to Stop Gender Violence and HIV


sasa_marchIn Kampala, Uganda, a non-profit organization has taken an innovative approach to not only reducing both violence against women and the spread of HIV, but preventing it from beginning in the first place.

By understanding that violence doesn’t occur in a vacuum, the project is working through community leaders and activists to engage those who traditional programs haven’t been able to reach and creating fundamental, lasting changes.[1] The program addresses violence through the lens of power as, according to Tina Musuya, head of the Centre for Domestic Violence Prevention, “If we invited people to discuss ‘gender’ or ‘domestic violence’, three women might show up. Because we focus on power, everyone is interested – men too.”[2] As a core driver of violence against women, a power-faced program enables SASA! to take apart, examine and question the societal norms that fuel and allow these practices to continue.

SASA!, a Kiswahili word meaning ‘now’, is a community mobilization intervention. Created by the non-profit Raising Voices, the program recruits and trains activists, community leaders and professionals, who then bring this knowledge to their own social networks.[3] It is composed of four stages – Start, Awareness, Support and Action – that develop and evolve in response to the specific community. They are provided with the necessary tools to engage and educate, support those involved and begin to take action. [4] The focus is on creating explicit discussions and mobilizing the community in a way that fundamentally changes their awareness of and how they think about power and that is sustainable beyond the completion of the program.[5]

What makes SASA! different is that it is addressing violence against women and HIV transmission as interconnected issues. The body of evidence for community level action against these issues remains limited, despite that at least 30% of women will experience intimate partner physical or sexual violence in their lifetime and that it is a risk factor for HIV infection.[6] Violence and the use of threats and intimidation, or the fear of any of these, limit a woman’s ability to use contraceptives and increase the likelihood that they will refuse HIV testing.[7] High levels of intimate partner violence are increased by “gender norms that support men’s dominance and control of women, create expectations about sexual entitlement for men and promote women’s subservience and obedience to men”.[8]

44imagesHowever, changes have been occurring in the communities where SASA! has been implemented. From 2007 to 2008, in eight communities in Kampala, the program underwent a clinical research trial by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, the first trial of a community-based project of this kind. Their assessment showed strong improvements in the attitudes and behaviours related to violence and HIV-risk. In comparison with previous years, women had a lower social acceptance and experience of physical and sexual intimate partner violence. There was significantly greater acceptance that women can refuse sex, more community support to women who were experiencing violence and fewer incidences of men taking multiple partners. [9] The intervention achieved significant results in a relatively short timeline, which were diffused even to those without direct contact with the activities. [10]

Currently, SASA! has been extended to 15 countries and partnered with over 35 organizations and institutions, adapting to settings as distinct as refugee camps, high-density urban slums, pastoralist communities, and various faith-based institutions.[11] However, it is only as strong as the community. This program requires inner, comprehensive knowledge of the geographic and social fabric. The project raises deeply entrenched and sensitive issues of power, gender and intimacy, which challenge the status quo and can cause anxiety, backlash and skepticism. There remains a lot to learn, and challenges will emerge with each new application, but SASA! shows the strength and ability of communities to successfully change the norms that lead to violence against women and HIV transmission.

For more information, visit the Raising Voices website.















Rachel Pott

Rachel Pott

Rachel Pott is a writer, teacher and human rights advocate from Peterborough, Canada.

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