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One [billion] rising, Zanzibar

STOP VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMENViolence against girls and women is the world’s most disturbing open secret.  One out of three women in the world will be raped or beaten in her lifetime.  Many girls’ first sexual experiences are unwanted. She was raped by someone she knew. He beat me, but I love him. Story after story of violence against women grip international headlines, from American music star Rhiannon  to the horrific gang rape of a young medical student on a Delhi bus, to systemic rape in the Congo, and just recently South Africa’s Pistorius murder case.

These cases are deeply chilling and complex. They make us cringe, but violence is easy to ignore when it’s not happening to us personally. Between the headlines and everyday life, there are a billion reasons why a woman does not speak up or out about violence and rape. Violence is stitched intricately into other more socially acceptable, even loving dynamics. It’s nuanced, confusing, and utterly demoralizing. Often, there’s already too much to lose and very little clarity about what’s to gain other than vengeance. The law is so fallible.

This kind of normal is numbing.

Depending on where we live, systems (however flawed) attempt to control violence against girls and women. But violence is usually pushed into the realm of the “personal.” Women are left to mitigate the repercussions of violence on their own. One evening about a year ago, I sat on the baraza talking with my neighbor, a woman in her forties, about the usual things – men, love, life, choices. It had taken us about a year to open up beyond prescribed greetings. She told me that after four jealous, abusive husbands, she refused to get married again, choosing to live on her own in a world she knew would shun her for making this decision. “Don’t you miss the companionship?” I asked. She shook her head defiantly.

Her solitude was victorious.

Two weeks ago I received an invitation via Facebook to attend a ONE BILLION RISING event in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania called “TUAMKE DAR,” (LET’S WAKE UP, DAR!). My curiosity was peaked.  I’d never heard about the campaign but after several clicks and speed reads, I was intrigue and believed in the message. The invitation was for one billion women and those who love them to gather on February 14, 2013 (Valentine’s Day) to “walk out, dance, rise up, and demand an end to violence.” The vision was for this to be the “biggest mass global action to end violence against girls and women in the history of humankind.”

I know violence personally. It has also reared its ugly head in my friends’ otherwise kind relationships. And I’ve seen violence destroy stressed, impoverished families in Stone Town. I was moved to participate. However, Sauti za Busara (“Sounds of Wisdom”), a major music festival in Stone Town, Zanzibar, was starting that same day and I wasn’t able to make it to Dar. I was happy to hear that Busara’s managing director Rebecca Corey and board member Hilda Kiel decided at the last minute to plan a “Zanzibar Rising” of sorts, as part of the festival’s kick-off activities.

Okay, ours was admittedly a small, shaky affair but it happened. And I believe, considering local context and culture, this alone was significant. Violence and abuse get seamlessly tucked into a world of secrets here. On an island that does not directly confront tension, rage, or anger, this tense dynamic often informs personal relationships. Saving face is a big part of the culture, and I’m not talking just about local people, but the expat community as well. Our world sometimes feels too small to call out our lovers, neighbors  imams and colleagues. And even if we do, the law exists so far away from intimate, personal spaces. Speaking out against violence can be humiliating, if not dangerous.

Valentine’s Day arrived and I headed over to Forodhani Gardens, Stone Town’s central public meeting space by the water, at around 4 p.m.  Busara staff had organized a Capoeira group to perform and also called on a mobile dance truck to provide some beats. The dance truck admittedly overpowered the low-key acapella drumming of Capoeira, but a disparate crowd formed nonetheless. Two older Italian women came with hand-made signs supporting the end of violence against girls and women, and the rest of us were a gaggle of expats, local women in the rising-loop, and others who just happen to be at the park and were persuaded to participate.

Did we claim space, break free, and dance? Well, we were a little behind the activist beat. But we found camaraderie in trying – holding hands, laughing, circling the square, sitting down to rest, puzzled by whether or not this was even working. It didn’t matter. We did it anyway. Grown men chatting to each other on the circular baraza had no choice but to look up from their everyday and see us – women – together — behaving differently.  Our spontaneous slogans caught the attention of lanky young Zanzibar boys who huddled to watch captivating Capoeira on the elevated band-stand platform. They laughed with [at] us, and we smiled back. Two young Swahili women who at first did not want to participate ended up joining our circle, learning the chants with us.

Mimi, muhimu! Wewe muhimu! I’m important, You’re important!

Msitupige, Tupendane! Don’t beat us, let’s love each other!

Heshima, Heshima, Onyesha Heshima! Respect, Respect, Show respect!

Sweaty and exhausted, we went our separate ways that evening and many of us swept up by an incredible festival weekend.

I honestly hadn’t our given our “rising” much thought until I came across some criticism of the ONE BILLION RISING campaign. Talia Meer, a blogger, accused ONE BILLION RISING of “losing the protest plot,” stating that ending gender-based violence will not end with one reductive choreographed global action and that these campaigns are more about feel-good activism than real change. I understand Meer’s criticism, the same that goes for any and all illusions of “clicktivism” as the answer to social problems. Meer wasn’t asking us to boycott campaigns like ONE BILLION RISING but to ask ourselves what we [as a society] were doing between risings to rise against the everydayness of violence.

At first, Meer’s perspective was disheartening, and even made our little Zanzibar rising slightly embarrassing. Then I thought about the gestalt to change. Parts making up a whole. Ending gender-based violence is something that happens through multiple streams all trickling toward an ocean of change. We have no idea how our small gesture of protest, of solidarity might have impacted someone’s thinking about gender-based violence. I invited two Indian girls to participate who then had to ask their fathers for permission to join me simply because our gathering was public. The fact that they came, and brought along two friends, was significant. And the two Swahili girls who randomly stood up with us to chant, that was not a small act in this context.

Was our rising enough to end violence against women and children in Zanzibar? Clearly, no. But this is what I mean by a “gestalt rising” where small acts parallel and hopefully intersect larger efforts to end a culture of violence toward girls and women.

In Zanzibar, where tradition often trumps change, the government has worked surprisingly well with organizations to confront child sexual abuse and violence. Under the unwavering leadership of Mubarak Maman, a child rights activist, psychologist, and Zanzibar Representative of Save the Children, change is on the horizon. Mubarak, originally from the Sudan, who has traveled extensively working for children’s rights, has reached out to nearly every facet of civil society in Zanzibar, encouraging specific revisions of policies and practices that impact the social well-being of girls and women. From police officers to doctors, lawyers to professors, teachers to imams, Mubarak has worked to break the silence around child sexual abuse and gender-based violence.

After years of negotiation and relationship-building, some serious structural shifts have occurred.


The One Stop, located at Mnazi Moja, Stone Town’s public hospital, is Zanzibar’s first rape crisis center  where girls and women can access “specialized services to survivors of physical and sexual violence, including health care, collection of forensic evidence, criminal investigation and psychosocial support.” The center was opened at around the same Zanzibar passed the Children’s Act of 2011, “to promote and protect the rights of women, children and vulnerable groups in line with international and regional human rights standards.” In the first six months alone, hundreds of cases came forward. Female police officers were there to listen. Doctors are able to gather evidence that can then be sent directly to fully functioning labs. This is a breakthrough for Zanzibar. Zainab Omar Mohamed, Minister for Women, Child and Youth Development, plans to open several other centers across the island called “Mkono kwa Mkono” (Hand to Hand) where anyone can report rape and abuse with dignity and respect.  Similar centers have opened at the Dar es Salaam port and in Arusha, as well.


It’s one thing to report cases, but to try them is another, and often cases are dropped because the victim or her family does not have the emotional or social support to take on the legal system. Just recently a child-friendly court was established in Zanzibar to make it easier for children to report abuse and to serve as witnesses in abuse and rape cases. The court, which features video-conferencing capabilities and trained counselors, reduces intimidation and protects the rights of vulnerable children, says Zanzibar Chief Justice Othman Makungu. This is a major advancement in Zanzibar considering the sensitive social dynamics here. When sexual abuse occurs at madrasa (religious schools), the consequences of outing the abuser (usually the teacher) are tremendous and isolating. Now children and youth can address abusers in relative security. The new child-centered court also addresses the fact that many times, children are the perpetrators as well as victims of abuse, and need counselling more than a prison sentence.


Despite the many disparities in police enforcement on the island, and a general lack of distrust of the police, several police centres around the island have established “dawati la jinsia na watoto” or “gender desks,” specifically to address sexual violence cases. The first gender desk opened in Madema with the second one now established in Mwera, all within the last year and a half. This initiative was established with the support of local government officials such as Bi Fatma Bilal, the principal secretary of Women, Children and Social Welfare, who believes passionately in the role of dialogue to prevent sexual violence against children and women, and hopes to provide training and counselling strategies to all police officers who work in this capacity.


One of the biggest challenges regarding sexual violence and abuse is the dearth of counselling services available to heal and recover from trauma. There’s a question of culture and social norms. Tending to the emotional lives of children and women has been admittedly inadequate when it comes to rape, incest, and domestic violence. Not all societies find value or meaning in Western-style talk-therapy or counselling. Islam strongly forbids domestic violence and imams often preach against it even during wedding ceremonies. But when it does happen, denial or prayer are common. Victims of domestic violence or sexual abuse usually turn to familial and/or religious networks to deal with crisis, if they reach out at all. For There are practically no counselling or therapeutic services on Zanzibar for women, locals or expats, seeking psychological support.

There’s a growing consensus that trained social workers, counselors  and compassionate public adults (police officers, teachers, lawyers, judges, religious leaders) are needed to help transform society and challenge norms around sexual abuse and violence. There are now three universities on the island that offer courses or diplomas programs for child protection, counselling, and social work. Zanzibar University offers a Diploma in Child Rights Protection, where Mubarak teaches some of the courses. The recently accredited Zanzibar School of Health currently enrolls 45 students studying counselling psychology, including a year of theory followed by an intensive counselling internship program. The State University of Zanzibar (SUZA) offers a Diploma in Social Work and Sarah Seme, Head of the Department of Social Sciences, hopes to offer health counselling courses.

All of these initiatives and developments have occurred in Zanzibar within the last two years. I write this just days after U.S. congress renews the Violence Against Women Act, but not without a fight. Even with these new initiatives and systems in place, overcoming the deep shame and social taboo of sexual and physical abuse will take strategic and creative action in other realms – especially grass roots, local, one by one.  Ultimately, social change happens through relationships – woman to woman, friend to friend, colleague to colleague, breaking the silence, alongside men who love women. Kavita Krishnan, leader of the All India Progressive Women’s Association (AIPWA), insists that “women don’t want  protection, they want freedom.” Violence is everyone’s problem — we know this. Through words and actions, quiet and loud, societies change because people consciously change, one by one.

The gestalt effect.

One by one, we rise every time we listen. Every time we open our doors to a friend who fears for her life. We rise when we voice what has been kept a secret for years. When we stop making excuses for our violent partners. We rise when we stop detaching ourselves from headline news. We rise when we educate ourselves and others about human rights, laws, programs, allies. We rise when we write about grief and shame. When we reveal the unspeakable. When we link everyday girls and women to genuine social services. When we acknowledge that no culture or country has been able to escape the madness of gender-based violence. We rise when we tell ourselves and each other that it’s okay to rise up.

There may not be one billion rising in Zanzibar, but there’s definitely more than one.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Talia Meer March 6, 2013, 6:37 am

    My editor pinned this to my article. And as I typically have a look when people quote me I noticed that in reading and quoting my article you missed my name. Meer not Leer. Interesting interpretations though.



    • Amanda March 6, 2013, 8:22 am

      Dear Talia,
      Sorry about that. I’ve already changed it. Thanks for reading this & sparking dialogue with your blog post. Best, Amanda

  • Nina Springle March 17, 2013, 8:58 am

    Thank you for writing this article. It can be so very difficult to get information on this topic in relation to Zanzibar once you are no longer in that region of the world. I also commend you on a thorough update under circumstances that I know can limit complete candour, although perhaps that is also changing. All very welcome news!
    I am wondering if you could advise me of how I may contact Mubarak Maman? I lived in Zanzibar for about five years, and have since done a lot of work with issues such as family violence, child protection and community healing around these issues. I would be very keen to make contact to discuss a couple of programs that I think could be very well received there that have had amazing effects both here in Australia where I am from and internationally.
    Any advice would be amazing.
    Thanks again for your terrific article. I will keep reading.