‘Let me be the last survivor’: Lessons from six years of action to end violence against women and girls in South and East Asia

Megan Lowthers Gender, Violence Against Women and Girls

In our second blog for the 16 Days of Activism against gender-based violence, Oxfam Canada’s Megan Lowthers looks back on six years of the Creating Spaces project, which offers powerful examples of how communities can mobilise to tackle GBV and win new laws to protect women and girls

The Creating Spaces team in the Philippines built an alliance with the youth-led #GirlDefenders in a successful campaign against marriage below the age of 19.
Credit: Patricia Miranda /Oxfam

After years in an abusive marriage, Sonali, 23, visited a support centre to seek help. She married at 17 and her husband and his family physically and emotionally abused her. Through Oxfam’s partner in India, the National Alliance of Women (NAWO), Sonali connected with a social worker who helped her leave her abusive husband and gain custody of her two sons.

“Be strong and believe in yourself,” says Sonali. “After going to the support centre, I learned about the different types of violence against women and learned that it is not acceptable. Now, I tell other women who face violence where to get help.”

NAWO is just one of 25 local partner organisations across Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Nepal, Pakistan, and the Philippines, supported by Oxfam Canada’s Creating Spaces project over the past six years. This initiative aims to reduce and end violence against women and girls (VAWG) and child, early, and forced marriage.

The six-year-long project seeks to change the lives of women and girls across south and east Asia. They face some of the highest levels of violence in the world, including domestic violence and marital rape, child, early and forced marriage, and trafficking for sexual exploitation and forced labour. This project also addresses the harmful, unequal gender norms that contribute to this violence.

Creating Spaces tackles these issues by:

  • Engaging key community actors to support and promote positive gender norms.
  • Supporting women and girls who have experienced different forms of violence.
  • Strengthening the knowledge and capacity of local institutions and alliances to influence change.

“I was forced to get married and take care of my children… When I see my friends go to school, I feel crushed. So, I want to stop child marriage: let me be the last survivor.”

Rasminah, West Java, Indonesia

The project’s successes sprang out of tireless women’s and youth leadership, community activism, and the alliances it built along the way across the six countries.

  • It reached over 350,000 people directly — almost 60 per cent being women and girls.
  • It resulted in 281 public declarations and actions to end VAWG and child, early and forced marriage.

Creating Spaces’ Impact around the World

Central to Creating Spaces is its support to movements demanding laws and legislation that protect women and girls from violence and early marriage. It also championed survivor-centered services, economic empowerment for women and girls, and movement building alongside influencers and local partners.

The project’s achievements include:

  • In Bangladesh, Creating Spaces encouraged men and boys to become gender equality allies to women and girls by engaging them in activities and campaigns. These efforts became the ChangeMakers alliance, which now advocates for women’s rights and gender justice across Bangladesh at the local and national levels.
  • In India, Creating Spaces supported two Women’s Support Centres in the states of Chattisgarh and Odisha that respond to cases of VAWG. They offer services such as counselling, shelter and legal and medical aid. These centres also work on outreach services and community mobilisation, setting up home visits when it is safe to do so, and linking survivors to relevant livelihood services.
  • In Indonesia, Creating Spaces and its implementing partners were pivotal in ratifying the country’s marriage law, which raised the minimum age of marriage for girls from 16 to 19. Indonesia’s government also selected a Creating Spaces partner to be assigned to a monitoring committee to ensure communities across the country understand and uphold this law.
  • In Pakistan, the project trained 181 service providers in women’s shelters on VAWG case handling. It worked with them to develop a holistic range of survivor-centred services including life skills, mental wellbeing, adult literacy, and art therapy.
  • In the Philippines, thanks to the tenacity of the Creating Spaces team and its allies like the youth-led #GirlDefenders, the Girls Not Brides Act outlawing marriage below the age of 19 has been approved by the Senate and the House. It will soon be presented to the President for approval.
  • In Nepal, Creating Spaces established 180 Community Discussion Centers (CDCs), instrumental spaces that contributed to stopping 300 cases of child marriage and other incidents of violence. These CDCs also transformed community perceptions and behaviour towards women and girls and linked women to economic empowerment initiatives.

What Main Lessons About Tackling GBV Should We Take Away from Creating Spaces?

The end of Creating Spaces and the 30th anniversary of 16 Days of Activism have us celebrating the achievements of the project and the broader movement to end GBV.

However, GBV remains a pervasive and pressing human rights issue.

The WHO estimates that 1 in 3 women globally will experience some form of intimate partner violence in their lifetime. The pandemic has worsened the situation. Since it started, there has been a considerable rise in GBV cases worldwide. UN Women states that 1 in 2 women reported they, or a woman they know, have experienced some form of violence since the pandemic began. Oxfam has documented that calls to domestic violence helplines rose across some countries by between 25 and 111 per cent in the first few months of the pandemic.

It’s a critical moment and a tremendous opportunity for governments, international actors, and all of us to take stock of our progress and live up to our commitments, big and small. There’s so much work still to be done. We all have a part to play in the fight to end GBV and it starts with supporting survivors and tackling gender inequality, which is the root cause.

We hope policymakers and organisations working in this area will take on board some of our major insights from the past six years of Creating Spaces. These insights include:

  • Ending GBV requires evidence-based, context-specific approaches that target unequal gender norms from the individual, household, and community levels all the way up to institutional and structural levels.
  • Women and girl survivors need to be at the centre of our VAWG responses. Make long-term investments in women’s and girl’s leadership, their access to livelihoods, and women’s rights organizations and shelters at the frontlines of this work.
  • Target key influencers and allies, like men, boys, and religious leaders, to champion women’s and girls’ rights and amplify survivors’ voices.
  • Mobilise youth to reduce and end VAWG and child, early, and forced marriage. In Creating Spaces, youth were driven to act more than any other constituency.
  • Build alliances for effective campaigning and advocacy strategies that have the power to change discriminatory laws and protect women and girls.

For survivors, change cannot come soon enough. “When I was having fun at school, I was forced to get married and take care of my children,” says Rasminah, from Indramayu, West Java in Indonesia. “When I see my friends go to school, I often cry, feel envious, crushed, and not feeling well. So, I want to stop child marriage. It’s enough. Let me be the last survivor.”

This is the second of a sequence of blogs Views & Voices will be publishing about the 16 Days campaign, as part of a range of content across Oxfam. You can read the launch paper for Oxfam’s 16 Days campaign here and a blog introducing the campaign here. The first blog, about violence against LGBTQIA+ people in central America, is here.

About the author: Megan Lowthers is a Women’s Rights Knowledge Specialist in gender-based violence at Oxfam Canada.
Acknowledgements: The Creating Spaces project is undertaken with the financial support of the Government of Canada – provided through Global Affairs Canada – and the generous Canadian public. Thank you to Elena Sosa Lerín, Asma Siyala, and Farwah Qasim from Oxfam Canada for contributing to this blog post.