News & Stories

how mama cash fights sexual violence

How Mama Cash fights sexual violence

Author Mama Cash

Starting at the roots

In part thanks to the involvement of Angelina Jolie, there is currently a great deal of interest for sexual violence in conflict zones. This is a positive development but there’s something about all this attention that doesn’t quite sit right. As if sexual violence in a time of war is more deserving of condemnation than at other times. Unfortunately, it occurs all the time and is omnipresent, as well as being ingrained in the very capillaries of societies. You don’t just fight sexual violence by taking care of victims, but by tackling legal systems and social norms that tolerate this violence.

The first time that sexual violence conflict received widespread attention was in the nineties. The war in former Yugoslavia was accompanied by an endless stream of reports about ‘rape camps’, where women were systematically impregnated in order to ‘breed’ more Serbians. As a result of pressure from the women’s movement, sexual violence was subsequently deemed a war crime and a crime against humanity.

This year, sexual violence was put back on the agenda during the ‘Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict’ in London, where Angelina Jolie also spoke. “That is good”, according to Vanina Serra, programme officer for Voice at Mama Cash. “But it’s not enough. People are too quick to seek solutions like ‘we are going to train our soldiers not to rape’ or ‘we will condemn it as an illegal war crime’. However, sexual violence partly occurs in war situations because it is also tolerated elsewhere. And that is where you need to start if you want to bring an end to it. And above all, you mustn’t operate over women’s heads. Women must be given a role in peace processes and have a say in how society is built after a war. Only then will something actually change. This was also demonstrated by a study from 2012, which analysed 40 years of violence against women in 70 countries. The researchers concluded in the American Political Science Review that the presence of a strong women’s movement was the determining factor in the decrease of violence against women.”

Police violence

Happy Kinyili is senior programme officer for Body at Mama Cash. She prefers to characterise the Mama Cash approach to sexual violence with a question. “Namely this: what counts as sexual violence exactly? People only think of rape. Or to be more specific: ‘a penis penetrating a vagina’. But sexual violence encompasses so much more. It is important to raise that matter. It also includes making it impossible for lesbian women to have children if they so wish due to their sexual inclination. Or policemen who indecently assault sex workers. The key question is actually: whose experiences of sexual violence count, and whose experiences don’t matter? Who are recognised as victims of sexual violence, and who are not? You have to deal with people who, in the case of the rape of a sex worker, say: ‘How can she have been raped? Doesn’t she earn her money through being sexually available?

“The presence of a strong women’s movement appears to be the determining factor in the decrease of violence against women.”


Mama Cash supports groups that stand up against all forms of sexual violence. Thus, not only against physical attacks on women by men, but against all the violence that women, girls and trans people try to suppress. Happy: “Because the mere rape or sexual assault, however terrible, is in fact only a manifestation of something greater; a manifestation of the unbelievably lopsided balance of power that continues to exist between men and women, but also between heterosexuals and gay people, between the ‘rich West’ and the ‘poor South’, between those with power and those without power.”
Vanina: “The groups that we support never focus purely and exclusively on offering help to survivors of sexual violence. We support groups that try to bring about change on a more systematic level; groups that try to change legal systems and stimulate women to make their voices heard publicly; groups that are not merely reactive and do not just offer help once sexual violence has already taken place, but that strive, above all, to prevent it from happening in the future.”

Four witnesses

Happy: “Take the Pakistani group War on Rape for instance. They give legal help to women who have been raped, but they also subsequently use the information they gather to kick up a public fuss. They do this so that people recognise how often rape takes place; that rape within a relationship is also actually rape, contrary to what people think; that the legal requirement to have four witnesses to be able to prove rape is ridiculous. The most beautiful thing is that the group succeeded in changing that last point. That is such an unbelievably important victory!”