Alumna at home and work in Africa

August 24, 2009

Nearly 20 years have passed since Professor Ira Zepp encouraged Lori Michau ’92 and her classmates in a social justice course to take risks, to venture beyond what was politically correct or even personally comfortable – to work to create a more just world. Today, the methods Michau and partner Dipak Naker developed to mobilize communities to prevent violence against women and children are in use in 60 countries in Africa and around the world.

Raising Voices, the organization co-founded by Michau and Naker, is based in Kampala, Uganda, and recognized regionally and internationally as a pioneer in preventative approaches with proven capacity for creative and practical programs. They are regularly sought out by a variety of international organizations and decision-makers to consult on program design and development, provide technical support and capacity building on violence against women and children, and human rights.

During Homecoming, Oct. 24, Michau’s work will be recognized by her alma mater with an Alumni Association Professional Achievement award. Read, in her own words, about Lori Michau’s work as a human rights advocate and community mobilizer – and catch a glimpse of her life in Africa with baby Kavita and partner Dipak Naker:

In 1995, I went to Tanzania as a social justice volunteer with Visions in Action, a small, non-profit organization which facilitates volunteer placements. I was given an amazing opportunity to play a part in developing and opening Mwanza's first center for women's health, Jijenge! Women's Center for Sexual Health. In Kiswahili, Jijenge! means to build yourself up.

At this center we provided women-friendly reproductive health services, the only confidential HIV testing in Mwanza at that time, as well as a range of community-based programs designed to promote women's rights and health. At Jijenge! while we were busy talking about a whole range of rights and health issues, women were coming from communities talking about the violence that they experienced within their intimate relationships. Violence against women emerged as a primary reason why women experienced poor health – from not being able to decide on the number of children to have, to using contraceptives, to negotiating condom use, to being at high risk for HIV infection.

In response, at first we started providing services to women experiencing violence, but very quickly realized that this was not sustainable – the waiting room was full every day. We knew we had to try to prevent the violence before it happened. We tried various activities to prevent violence at Jijenge! but realized that there was very little work and experience on how to actually create community-based programs on violence prevention.

After a few years at Jijenge! we started Raising Voices to specifically focus on creating meaningful and effective violence prevention approaches.

So in 1999 my partner, Dipak (who was also at Jijenge! and actually grew up in Tanzania) and I founded Raising Voices. Our aim for Raising Voices was to create a locally appropriate and effective approach to preventing violence in East Africa. We developed our first approach called “Mobilizing Communities to Prevent Domestic Violence,” and came to Uganda in 2000 to field test it. It was published in 2003 and is now being used in over 60 countries in Africa and around the world.

In the U.S., before traveling to Tanzania I was interested in women's rights and violence against women. I volunteered at different organizations providing services for women experiencing violence. It has always been an issue that touched me and while providing services is an essential piece of work and can be very rewarding, I felt that violence had to be approached as a social justice issue – that we should not be just bandaging the wounds after violence happens but figuring out how to increase women's status and
power in the community and in their relationships so that it wouldn't happen in the first place.

When I came to East Africa, I could see even more clearly, the profoundly debilitating impact of violence. Violence has negative consequences on women's physical and emotional well-being as well as their ability to participate in community life. In addition, in this environment, where rates of HIV and AIDS are so high, violence against women can also be deadly. In low-resource countries where there are few to no services available, it is essential to work on the root issue causing violence in the first place.

In our analysis at Raising Voices, this is the imbalance of power between women and men. In relationships here, women are often seen as the property of men. They are viewed in terms of the role they play (childbearer, wife, daughter, etc) and not on their own terms, as autonomous individuals with their own humanity. In this way we conceptualize violence against women as a violation of women's rights and approach the work within the framework of human rights.

My favorite class and professor at WMC was Dr. Ira Zepp. I can't remember the name of the class I took with him but it was around social justice. We explored race and sexism, classism. The class and discussions with Dr. Zepp were the beginning of my own process of becoming politicized. The class exposed me to the framework of social justice and a whole range of writers and thinkers who I began exploring.

Dr. Zepp encouraged us to go beyond what was politically correct or even personally comfortable – to take risks, explore and be honest about our own prejudices as that would help us truly grow. After many years of being involved in various social movements and issues, I came to appreciate and recognize how Dr. Zepp approached injustice not with anger and resignation but with optimism and faith – that each of us could and should work to create a more just world.

The most rewarding part of the work is seeing change happen in individuals and in communities. There are long-held beliefs about the value (or lack of it!) of women. Women live very hard lives here – they are responsible for so much from bearing and raising children, to often providing for the family in petty business by selling chapatti, or small goods, in a roadside table, maintaining the home, being wives.

Yet they are profoundly undervalued, and in turn, internalize this as normal. Most rewarding moments come when women, through being exposed to different ideas, begin to feel differently about themselves – begin to recognize their own worth and even start demanding that they be treated differently. This is very difficult in a community where conformity is valued so deeply.

Perhaps even more rewarding is when men begin to see women differently. Our programs engage women and men and seek to have community members ask new, critical questions about rights, violence and women's status. When men begin to recognize that their negative attitudes about women are hampering not helping their families, making their relationships less happy and fulfilling and impinging on women's rights, it is incredibly encouraging to see men who are trying to forge new kinds of relationships with their wives and families.

The change may not be dramatic and overnight, it is more often in small, small steps that both women and men take that demonstrate how mutual respect can transform families. Our intention with our programming is to encourage this not only with individuals but with communities. So, when we see neighbors going to the aid of women when they hear violence, men confronting other men they know who are using violence, new respect from community members of men who are creating balanced relationships with their wives, social sanctions against men who are using violence – this is real progress.

Just last week for example, in a neighborhood where community members knew a woman was living with violence, yet was stigmatized for years with people just ignoring her shouts when she was being beaten, the local council leader who lived nearby organized a group of women and men and went to the house at night when she was being beaten. They said the violence would no longer be tolerated and that if it continued, the man would no longer be welcome in the community. Women talked with the woman experiencing violence and encouraged her to talk with them. The man using violence was asked to come to a meeting with other men to talk about how better to manage his home. This is just one small example of the small but important steps happening in the community where long-held ideas about women and social acceptance of violence are changing.

On a more personal note: I have 8-month-old daughter named Kavita. She seems to love the heat and culture of Uganda where, unlike the U.S., babies are seen as belonging to the community so everyone picks her up and passes her around and she doesn't seem to mind a bit – actually loves all the attention!

We live in a simple cement house – the cement keeps the heat out and the cool in. Only about 6 percent of people in Uganda have access to running water and electricity so we count ourselves among the lucky. Although in Uganda even for the 6 percent, supply is not regular. There are regular power and water outages. We learn to conserve water and live by candlelight. Water has to be boiled for drinking as it isn't potable.

We live about 5 minutes outside city center in a small community called Kamwokya. It is bustling – quite urban – although it is not unusual to pass goats, cows and chickens on my way to work in the morning. I also wake to the sound of the call to prayer from the mosque, roosters and hawkers shouting out the day's goods, usually fresh fruits and vegetables which are pushed in wheelbarrows. The fresh fruit is plentiful and delicious. The main food is matoke – a green banana which is peeled, boiled and mashed and eaten with a groundnut paste. For meat-eaters there is a kind of soupy meat sauce.

I am fortunate in that I live within walking distance to our offices – traffic is really terrible here as the roads were not built to handle high traffic and the cities are rather unplanned so it is very difficult to widen roads. Many roads in city center are paved but just a little outside of town the pavement ends and they are dirt roads, contributing to the ever-present coating of dust on everything and everyone!

Life is pretty simple, spending time with friends, ever engaged in the work, a sense of community is much stronger so everyone knows everyone else and the idea of privacy as it is in the global North is very different here. Consumerism is creeping into Uganda in the last five years or so but it is still pretty avoidable. There is one movie theatre in town and of course live local musicians.

Kampala is also near Lake Victoria, which is the second largest fresh water lake in the world and absolutely beautiful. So, we spend time hanging out near the lake, although swimming isn't advised because of water-borne diseases due to lack of proper sanitation processing and water treatment plants. One has to be careful of malaria, which is endemic here. I've been sick many times and while miserable – high fever and aches – it isn't as dramatic as it sounds to American ears!

Editor's note : In 2003, Raising Voices co-founded Center for Domestic Violence Prevention (CEDOVIP) in Kampala, as an independent organization, and continues to provide technical and management support. Raising Voices is a registered public charity in Kampala, Uganda.