Women’s and Men’s Workshops

You may wish – or be asked – to combat issues of social exclusion such as sexual and gender-based violence, intra-familial violence or gender discrimination through the medium of women’s groups, men’s groups or mixed gender discussion groups.

Women’s groups are a popular, almost unquestioned method in empowerment work. Their benefits derive from creating a safe space in which individuals who are often marginalized from mainstream debate or political activism can share experiences, find mutual support and plan together to confront gender issues.

However, working with women only is unlikely to change gender discrimination and harmful heteronormative practices. Working with men – in conjunction with women or apart – can also be key to redressing equality and stimulating discussion on topics that are rarely addressed. In addition, in certain post-conflict settings, the proliferation of women’s groups, NGOs and projects, which rarely contemplate men, can arguably isolate men and produce resentment in what may be a recently disenfranchised demographic post-upheaval or displacement. The disengagement of men and economic and social empowerment of women may stimulate backlash in some contexts, with men asserting a dominance they were accustomed to through violent means. Therefore it is doubly important to engage men in pushing for gender progress.

For the purposes of this Toolkit, the focus is on women’s groups, as this forms part of Asylum Access’ experience, however it is important to keep men, boys, girls and families in mind when planning workshops to tackle social exclusion and promote inclusion – both within the refugee population and across refugee and host communities. Consider whether you should prioritize women-only spaces, joint tackling of issues, or both.

The following pages on conducting women’s workshops and sample topics, are based on Asylum Access Ecuador’s women’s group program.

Why we work with refugee women

Women are “objects of aggression” simply for being women. It is a structural problem in patriarchal societies.

Gender-based violence, which includes sexual violence, is used with impunity as a “weapon of war”, a systematized and generalized practice by armed groups in many countries. It is a method of creating terror, having control of a population, etc. For many refugee women, fleeing their country does not mean an end to this violence. Often times this violence is reproduced in the host country, given the situation of vulnerability that women find themselves in.

Asylum Access Ecuador (AAE) has begun a project around Integral Justice, in which it intends to promote access to formal justice and offer tools for accessing rights by way of a process of personal and collective empowerment. It is necessary for women to begin to take a more active role and adopt a sense of collective responsibility in order to leave violence and violations of their rights behind. This can happen by way of tools that allow for physical and emotional healing after traumatic experiences.

It is important to recognize not only women’s injuries over the course of their lives, but also their grief, their skills, and their capabilities, in order to help them know themselves better. It is therefore necessary to create and equip secure spaces that allow them to break their silence and rebuild their personal integrity. This is the purpose of our work.

The fact is that being a woman refugee and often survivor of gender-based violence puts many women in situations of vulnerability with respect to their identity and self-esteem.

In the majority of societies, a patriarchal value-system prevails, and social messages towards women are centered around shame, sacrifice, and blame. This conditions women to be submissive to others instead of caring for themselves, making self-knowledge and fulfillment of their own needs more difficult.

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