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Stories of Change: Oxfam We Can campaign

In 2004, Oxfam GB launched a six country, six year campaign – We Can End All Violence against Women (We Can Campaign) in South Asia (http://www.wecanendvaw.org/ ). The campaign aimed to reduce social acceptance of violence against women (especially domestic violence) through catalysing a process of self reflection and change in individuals which leads to changes in norms and practice at the community level.
The campaign was inspired by the work Oxfam GB had done in this region with its partners on ending violence against women. The campaign chose as its symbolic target the 50 million ‘missing’ women in South Asia
The campaign’s vision is to inspire 50 million people across six South Asian countries to oppose violence against women. The campaign does this through Change Makers (ordinary men and women of all ages who are encouraged and supported to undertake this process of self-change alongside their work to influence others)
The idea is to reach 5 million change makers each of whom is expected to reach at least ten others. So far, the campaign has mobilized around 3.7 million change makers in the six countries in South Asia.

Read below stories of a few extraordinary change makers in South Asia

Sumati Devi-Jharkhand, India

Sumati is an important person in the town of Sisai (about 2 hours away from the city of Ranchi in India.) She is called in by the police, by the hospital, by schools to help them with cases of violence against women and to talk to them about it. She runs a ‘We Can Centre’ where people meet and talk about issues raised by the campaign. But it was not always this way for Sumati.
From almost the first day of her marriage, Sumati realised that she had no support. Her in-laws abused her both physically and verbally. They forced her to work and took for themselves the money that she earned.  Her husband was an alcoholic and a compulsive gambler, keeping company with the worst set of men in Sisai. He was physically abusive when at home, openly derisive of her outside. He needed no reason to beat me. He didn’t even care if he was beating me outside the house – in public. Even though we hardly had a relationship, he would force me to have sex. That was how my son was born.”
The beatings continued throughout her pregnancy. Sumati’s condition hardly improved after the birth of her son. It was at this time that Sumati heard of the We Can campaign through an acquaintance. Sumati signed up to become a part of the campaign-a change maker. “The campaign seemed to be talking about my life, how could I not join?”
“The first few years were difficult. I would have to hide and go to the meetings. The meetings were very inspiring though and that kept me going. There were change makers from Sisai and neighbouring villages”.  Sumati could not really participate in the campaign activities in the beginning. However, the group was supportive and encouraged her to continue attending the meetings.
Gradually, Sumati started talking to other people about these issues. She began by sharing her experiences and later on started giving advice to other women in similar circumstances. “Somehow, my advise became important to the group and I started getting calls to mediate cases  – some in Sisai and some even in other villages. I remember first using a cycle to urgently get to a neighbouring village!” she says
It was at this point that Sumati decided to tackle the violence at home. “I thought much about it and decided to start with my in laws first. Things hardly changed at home though. I was still being forced to work and earn money for the family. No one at home seemed willing to take care of my child. So I would go out to work only when my baby was sleeping and come running back home by the time for his feed. As soon as he grew a little older, I’d take him along with me. I worked at that time as construction labour, so he would play or sleep near the site. I continued talking to my in-laws though. After a while they started listening to me. There was a change in my in-laws behaviour. My husband did not change though.”
In the meanwhile, Sumati’s husband got admission in a teacher’s training course in a nearby town. She urged her in-laws to encourage him to attend this two year residential course. He went reluctantly but would keep coming back over the weekends and continuing his abuse. However, her husband’s departure was a good opportunity for everyone in the family to reflect on the violence in their home.
Sumati’s still has to face violence from her husband occasionally but now she fights back. “Once when he told me that I was ruining his home and his parents and that I should leave, I replied that I would leave only with what I came. So I would not take my son or his parents – he could work and look after both of them. Now he doesn’t have the courage to hit me, but is abusive in a host of other ways.”
In addition to tackling the violence in her own home, Sumati is now an active member of the local community. She was recently involved in two extreme cases of domestic violence and was requested by the local police station to help resolve the issues.
 Sumati is proud of the work that her group of change makers is doing in these villages “Domestic violence is very prevalent in these parts. Maybe that is the reason so many people join us – because this issue is close to their lives. They see it. They feel it.  The Change Makers groups in the villages are very active and they deal with many cases as well as work with communities to show what is violence and how we can change to prevent it.
The work of the Change Makers has also spread beyond the groups. We now get calls from the police and the local hospitals/doctors if there is such a case. They call us to come and mediate or help them with the cases. I think that is very good support. If people like them oppose violence, then a certain message is sent to the community.”
It’s a difficult fight but one that Sumati believes in. She feels that the change is sustainable because they are working with changing people’s attitudes and beliefs.

Sumati Devi, an active Change Maker in Jharkhand

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