The silencing of violence against women

By Tanja Bastia

Last Tuesday Mo Hume came to Manchester to speak at the development@manchester seminar series. The seminar series has been running for five years and each year invites around ten internationally renown speakers on international development (see link for this year’s programme ). Mo is a political scientist at the University of Glasgow ( with a longstanding research experience in Central America. Her paper drew on her longitudinal research on gender and violence in El Salvador, which she began in 2000 as part of her PhD research.

Latin America is known as one of the most violent regions in the world and Mo’s presentation highlighted the ways in which violence is gendered. Over the last decade, there have been some advances and improvements in relation to understanding violence as gendered. For example, we now have some gender-disaggregated data on violence. Legislation has also been approved to recognize the murder of women as women, under the (contested) term femicide. Yet most of the violence that women experience continues to be silenced. This is because violence continues to be framed from masculinist points of view, with an emphasis on the presentation of spectacle and stereotype. The emphasis is on the marginalized male gang member, while the everyday low-level violence that women continue to experience is largely overlooked. One statistic stood out: levels of violence are usually counted in terms of murder rates. In terms of murder rates in Central America, women are ‘only’ 14-20 percent of the victims – a fact that leads some to contest the anti-femicide advocacy that has been active in Central America since the early 2000s (Staud and Mendez 2015). Yet if we take a broader approach to violence and include interpersonal or ‘low’ intensity violence in our measures, the gendered dynamics of violence become more complex. For example, research in the UK shows that when domestic violence data are aggregated to crime survey data, then women become the majority of the victims of violence (Walby et al., 2014). Mo’s talk highlighted the brutal forms that violence against women often takes, which often includes torture and mutilations. What counts as ‘violence’ is therefore important as it has significant consequences for who is included and who is excluded as victims of violence.

As femicides are on the increase in other parts of Latin America, it is imperative that we pay attention to the ways in which violence is changing. The discussion ended on a worrying note, as Mo highlighted a second silencing that is taking place, that of the people who advocate against violence against women (and against militarization more broadly). Drawing on her longitudinal engagement with women’s and feminist groups in Central America, Mo shared her worrying observations that many of the advocacy groups are now under increased threat of violence, because of their advocacy work but also because of an increased fragmentation of the territory. People that were able to share information and visit each other’s houses, people who live in adjacent villages and neighbourhood, are now unable to cross territory lines that are being guarded by violent groups. The state is implicated in allowing that everyday violence continues to grow but also in promoting a discourse of claiming that victims of violence have fallen victims by their own choosing. For example, evidence from Guatemala indicates that some investigating officers have dismissed murder victims: if they are men, they must be a gang member; if they are women, they must be prostitutes. The assumption is that ‘good people’ do not fall victims of violence. Class prejudices play a huge factor in delineating these stereotypes (Hume and Wilding, 2015). In such a context, just attending a meeting or speaking to the police can get you killed. Advocacy groups are therefore weakened as speaking out becomes a dangerous act.

As speaking out from the very same places where this violence is unfolding becomes tantamount to raising a shooting target, it is imperative that these facts are shared by transnational women’s movements and by those of us who will not face danger if we speak out. Please share this post so that we help breaking the silence.

Mo has been working with this campaign:

Further reading:

Hume, Mo (2009) The politics of violence: gender, conflict and community in El Salvador, Bulletin of Latin American research book series. Wiley-Blackwell: Chichester,

Hume, Mo and Polly Wilding (2015) “Non-judicial justice? Women’s strategies for challenging domestic violence in contexts of chronic urban insecurity”, in Javier Auyero, Philippe Bourgois, and Nancy Scheper-Hughes (eds.) Violence at the Urban Margins, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Staud, Kathleen and Zulma Y. Méndez (2015) Courage, resistance and women in Ciudad Juárez: challenges to militarization, Texas University Press,

Walby, Sylvia, Towers, Jude and Brian Francis (2014) Mainstreaming domestic and gender-based violence into sociology and the criminology of violence, The Sociological Review 62(S2): 187-214 (

Washington Valdez, Diana (2006) The killing fields: harvest of women, Cosmic enterprises, winner of the Samuel Chavkin Prize for Integrity in Latin American Journalism, available for download here


Amnesty International, Violence against women

Central American women’s network,

Social accountability or social transformation? Working ‘with’ and ‘against’ the grain

By Sophie King

Social accountability has become an important ‘buzzword’ among development actors seeking to understand the forms of state-society relations that may be supportive of better public services. Malena and McNeil (2010: 1) define it as: ‘the broad range of actions and mechanisms beyond voting that citizens can use to hold the state to account’. The trouble is that the focus has become the mechanisms, rather than the inequality and social and political relationships shaping public goods expenditure and quality.

Some findings from my own research into NGO-led social accountability initiatives in rural Ugandaresonate with those recently published by Care International and ODI about community score card initiatives in Malawi, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Tanzania. However, our interpretations of what these findings tell us may differ. Drawing on my Uganda study, but also a systematic review of how context shapes outcomes from social accountability initiatives, here are some questions which those seeking to intervene within agrarian, neopatrimonial and semi-authoritarian contexts like Uganda’s could consider:

  1. What is the history of state-society relations and popular mobilisation in this context?

The Rwenzori sub-region, where this fieldwork took place, had a long history of ethnic and religious conflict, leading to the exclusion of particular groups from social services and economic opportunities, and a legacy of resentment, which continues to shape both political and civil society relations. Civil servants are often not socially embedded within the community, being subject to frequent transfers – meaning they are not subject to informal accountability pressures on the basis of kinship or longer-term relationships. Decades of conflict and authoritarianism and state monopoly over cooperative production, followed by the collapse of the cooperative sector, has left a legacy of deference to authority and mistrust of collective action. 

  1. What is the socio-economic status of the breadth of people using the public service in question, and what relationships do they have with other social groups?

In this particular region, some of the poorest families did not send their children to school, wealthier households made use of private provision, and the socio-economic spectrum of small-scale farmers, labourers, and traders in between used state services. Few would be educated beyond primary level. In Uganda as a whole, only approximately 12 percent of school-aged children complete secondary education.  Mechanisms for social accountability require parents and service users to report problems to a community management committee, head teachers, or their village council chairperson. The village chair also presides over land transactions and the village court, while those educated enough to work as head teachers, nurses, or to occupy leadership positions, are often friends. There is also a strongly entrenched culture of conflict avoidance, which was partly linked to concerns about the use of witchcraft in response to perceived slights. This is an unpromising context for monitoring, reporting or complaint.

  1. What are the formal and informal institutional incentive structures throughout the service delivery system?

In Uganda, a system of ‘inflationary patronage’ – where ever-increasing amounts of resources are required to keep different power bases in society happy – depletes resources for public goods. Levy and Waltonprovide a helpful framework for analysing the web of relationships that shape incentive systems within particular sectoral machineries. In rural western Uganda, teachers and health workers are on low salaries and experience frequent delays in receipt of salary, with few prospects for professional development. In cases of wrong-doing, District officials simply transfer workers elsewhere, rather than enforce sanctions. MPs and councillors are focused on votes garnered through favour and the cultivation of connections to extensive kinship networks, and are not usually interested in rocking boats.

  1. Over which public goods has a strong social contract emerged among citizens? How have the terms of delivery of particular services been framed?

Universal Primary Education has been framed in Uganda as a gift from the President. Where once parents kept schools running during Amin’s reign of terror, in rural western Uganda, few parents are now prepared to contribute anything to the running of the school and have interpreted the policy – framed in populist terms in advance of successive elections – as meaning that everything about school attendance is free. Children go to school without lunch, falling asleep in lessons after eating nothing all day; buildings and premises are not maintained; children lack books and pencils to work with; and PTAs – in this area at least – were all but defunct.

  1. What forms of autonomous collective agency exist among low-income groups in this context, and are there any examples of effective collective organising specific to this context?

In such a context, where social stratification, unequal power relations and adverse incentive structures work so strongly against inclusive development expenditure and downwards accountability, those interested in changing things for the benefit of lower-income groups cannot think about service accountability in a vacuum. While shifts within the wider political settlement and wider structural transformation are of course critical to substantive change, there is still much that can be done at the grassroots to build democracy from below.

With the landholdings of middle- and low- income groups shrinking in Uganda while those of the higher socio-economic groups increase, and the great African land-grab continuing seemingly unabated, it seems to me that smallholder farmers can only accumulate the socio-economic and associated political power to advance their interests in social provisioning terms by acting collectively. Bukonzo Joint Cooperative Union is an inspirational example of what can be achieved when farmers adopt a social justice and savings-based approach to social, economic and political change.  Smallholders here are transforming relations between men and women; between farmers and the state; and between farmers, traders and buyers. Ben Jones also describes a range of associational forms that are alive and well in Uganda, including clan structures, Pentecostal churches, and burial societies. Other forms of self-help group are increasingly present in rural villages and a gradual revival of the cooperative sector is taking place… can smallholders be supported to exploit these opportunities in progressive and inclusive ways, or will such opportunities be lost to competition and clientelism?

  1. What is the history of external intervention in this context and what opportunities exist for accountable alliances to be built between professionals and low-income groups?

That donor-driven development interventions have frequently undermined rather than catalysed and strengthened grassroots agency and autonomy is surely no longer in question. So the question now becomes what forms of intervention can offer marginalised and low-income groups support and solidarity without creating dependency or reinforcing clientelist relations?

One Ugandan research and development institute I worked with had moved away from channelling donor aid and towards information provision, knowledge generation, networking and relationship building, convening alternative spaces for multi-stakeholder dialogue, and attempting to convene channels through which context-specific grassroots experiences could reach senior decision-makers. This was only possible with the partnership of a Northern co-financing agency with the room for manoeuvre to create space for experimentation over the long term. This agency’s financing has been seriously cut, in response to negative public attitudes to aid.

Bukonzo Joint Cooperative Union have had guidance from an activist-consultant for over a decade, who has supported them to develop their own home-grown gender justice methodology without becoming directive. The BJCU Coordinator has been adept at managing relationships with external actors – taking loans not grants, or only accepting donor aid in support of those in extreme poverty, or for international learning exchange. Mitlin and Satterthwaite offer another case study of how IIED have worked with Shack/Slum Dwellers International and donor agencies to break down the hierarchy of donor aid. There are many good examples out there.

In summary, perhaps as well as ‘working with the grain’ and working through elites, we need to think about how to integrate such strategies, with a focus on strong, value-driven local associations that also have tangible economic benefits for their members. Associations that can federate, that can ally with professionals while remaining autonomous, and that can have the kinds of ripple effects that, as an increasing number of studies are beginning to show, can contribute towards building democracy from below. This requires arethinking of the role of external actors in such contexts, and new modalities of aid and development finance, but it also, critically, requires a change in public attitudes internationally.

Breaking through the Restrictions of Disciplinary Divides

By Rory Horner

Rory Horner observes in a recent Area article how disciplinary divides between geography and development studies can impede understanding of contemporary phenomena, and how those problems can be effectively addressed.

The world economic, social and political map and consequent geographies of development are rapidly changing, as a result of such trends as the growing influence of rising powers and simultaneous forms of crisis in both global North and South.

Yet, among geographers, it can seem as if the study of development is often relatively separate to that of economic geography, which can be quite perplexing and challenging for postgraduate students and others keen to research at this interface.

In a recent paper in Area, I explore how this imbalance may be encountered and hopefully gradually overcome. Upon commencing my PhD research on India’s pharmaceutical industry, I initially focused on the economic characteristics of Indian pharmaceutical firms as emerging multinationals. However, I struggled to reconcile much of the conceptual work I was reading, initially in economic geography, with the empirical issues at hand.

Fieldwork beyond disciplinary boundaries

Particularly when conducting fieldwork in India and reading various India-published newspapers and journals (as well as some more development studies-oriented research), I was opened to a whole host of broader “development” debates around the industry – most notably around the public health issue of access to medicines. After my pilot fieldwork, I adapted my research to try to take a more inclusive focus:

  • Interviewing:
    • a wider range of small and medium-sized, as well as large, firms
    • civil society organisations as well as firms and policymakers
  • Asking a broader range of questions, going beyond firm-level concerns to a greater interest in access to medicines issues
Rory 1

Corporate Headquarters of Aurobino Pharma, Hyderabad. (Copyright: Rory Horner)


Rory 2

A small-scale pharmaceutical company in Delhi (Copyright: Rory Horner)

Particularly for those at an early career stage who are perhaps less embedded in prior research divisions, fieldwork, and engagement with various stakeholders, can provide relative freedom from academic boundaries and be a crucial stage for challenging sub-disciplinary boundaries.

Richer geographies of development?

Ultimately, the scope of my PhD research shifted from understanding a growth industry, and its industrial reorganisation internationally, to research about global governance, specifically changing patent laws, the role of the state and development impacts. By playing a crucial role in the global access to medicines campaign and in contesting a Northern agenda on pharmaceutical patent laws, the Indian pharmaceutical industry, and its associated patent laws, have had global significance in a social as well as an economic context. Any analysis to separate the ‘economic’ aspects of the industry from the broader ‘development’ dimensions involving health would have been incomplete.

Writing up the research, making conference presentations and submitting to journals did provide somewhat of a re-encounter with disciplinary divides. Yet, some journals and senior scholars (and PhD supervisors) fortunately appeared interested in seeing early career researchers pursue research in new directions. I found new opportunities by drawing on economic geography literature to contribute to a development debate (around the impact of changes in patent law) and vice-versa (around integration into global production networks). In addition, India-focused social science publications, and a report for the interviewees involved in the research, provided opportunities to communicate my results relatively free of disciplinary boundaries.

The possibilities of any scholar being completely free of sub-disciplinary boundaries is doubtful, and some research may have greater resonance with one “side” (for me, with economic geography). Yet if we are to better understand major development debates that cross the economic, social and political, such as access to medicines issues in India as featured in a 2013 New York Times article, we need more integrated approaches. By engaging with the dynamics of extensive fieldwork and the integrated nature of social and economic development, a new generation of researchers can play a crucial role in breaking down the divides between the “economic” and “non-economic”, in geography and related fields, and ultimately produce richer geographies of development.

Recommendations for postgraduate students seeking to cross (sub-) disciplinary boundaries
  • Read beyond your (sub-)discipline and from multiple sources (e.g. academic, policy, media, international journals and local publications)
  • “Listen” to the data during fieldwork, following and even reconsidering the research question, relatively free of disciplinary boundaries
  • Inter-relate concepts, perspectives and literatures derived from global North and South, and different parts of each, to make new connections in journal publications
  • Write publications for stakeholders where the research was conducted, and other more “empirical” publications to communicate the work relatively free of disciplinary boundaries


This post appeared at the Geography Directions blog under the title Beyond sub-disciplinary boundaries: geographers and the study of development’.