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8 March 2021

"There is only one world and we share it"

Gabriela Wichser Photo ZVG By Samuel Rink
Gabriela Wichser Photo ZVG By Samuel Rink

Is the Corona pandemic a driver of sexual violence against girls and women in South Africa? How does terre des hommes switzerland implement the cross-cutting issue of gender in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development? Why is our solidarity with young people in the global south particularly important right now? The big personal interview for International Women's Day on 8 March 2021 with Gabriela Wichser, Head of Programmes and Member of the Executive Board of terre des hommes switzerland.

What Gabriela Wichser has to say about the 50th anniversary of women's suffrage in Switzerland, how she became politicized as a powerful teenager born in 1980, and what she still stands for today.

"I learned as a teenager that it 'mega fägt' to develop and create something together."

The definition of gender and how terre des hommes switzerland approaches and implements gender justice in its work with young people in Southern Africa and Latin America.

"Gender cannot be an isolated single issue, but is a cross-cutting issue that brings about change in society as a whole."

Which is why terre des hommes switzerland is focusing on the rampant sexual violence against women and girls in South Africa during the Corona Crisis on International Women's Day 2021.

"The test of strength is still the be-all and end-all of South African masculinity."

Why our view of the Corona Crisis is far too small-scale - and how we can support young people worldwide to help build the world of tomorrow.

"We're not going to get a handle on this virus unless we give everyone access to vaccination."


Gender equality, which terre des hommes switzerland promotes worldwide, is not a matter of course in our country either. It is only since 1971, for example, that women in Switzerland have been allowed to vote and elect at national level. What do you say to that?

Gabriela Wichser: I was born in 1980 and grew up at a time when the opportunities for young women in Switzerland were largely open. I am very grateful for that. At the same time, I realise that there is still a long way to go before we actually have gender equality. That is why I fight for my children and their friends, but also for all other children and young people in the world, so that they can all fulfil their potential with the same rights and opportunities.

As a teenager, I was not aware of what women had fought for in terms of equality before me. Since my political socialisation during my ethnology studies, I recognise some elements in my biography that I share with many women of my generation. I grew up in the country and I went to Gymi, although my father thought I should do something tangible and thus an apprenticeship instead of studying. But my mother supported my plans. I had a lot of power as a teenager and thought I was doing what I thought was important.

How did your power show as a teenager?

(Smiles) I was quite active in many ways. I helped to set up a youth centre and was elected to the board. I ran Pro Juventute children's camps and was also on the board there. I wrote a monthly youth page in the local newspaper and I played volleyball in the top league and coached the juniors.

Were you also interested in politics as a teenager?

Yes, I took part in the youth session in Bern. So I learned even then that it is "mega fägt" to develop and shape something together that is important to me and close to my heart. I was very lucky to grow up in an environment where I could develop my potential and always received positive feedback for my socio-political commitment. That was motivating and extremely important for my future path.

This happiness is denied to countless girls and women. According to estimates by the World Health Organization, over a third of women worldwide have experienced physical and or sexual violence at the hands of their partner or other men. How does the 2030 Agenda of the UN Sustainable Development Goals intend to tackle this complex and huge problem at its root and solve it in the long term?

Gender is a cross-cutting issue in all 17 Sustainable Development Goals. The systematic inclusion of the gender perspective is also, but not only, about supporting and promoting women. The aim is for everyone, women and men, to have equal access in all areas of life regardless of their gender and other factors such as origin or social status. This is the holistic view of what is known as gender mainstreaming, and it is also what we aim to achieve in our programme work. of terre des hommes switzerland consistently apply. Equal rights and opportunities for women and for men is relevant in all our work.

And how does this approach manifest itself in concrete terms?

First of all, our commitment to equal rights for women and men does not mean that girls have to become like boys. Rather, gender equality means that the rights, duties and opportunities of women and men apply regardless of their gender. In other words, equality means the fair treatment of all people with their respective needs. This can mean equal treatment or additional support in relation to disadvantaged groups.

In relation to our project work with young people in southern Africa and Latin America, this means that whether it is girls and young women in South Africa who are survivors of sexual violence or young women and men in Brazil who see no prospects for a small-scale farming existence - disadvantaged and vulnerable young people need our support and accompaniment.

At the same time, it is important that we sensitize all other members and actors in society to the unequal power relations. Equality and gender justice also means critically questioning existing gender role patterns and actively working for equal relationships in one's own environment - in the family and at school, at work or in the community.

We therefore work in our development projects not only with female but also with male youth. It is often central that we address the different needs of girls and boys in separate groups. So we encourage them in separate groups to think about their own behaviour, which they have adopted from their parents and society. In this way, they learn about the benefits of gender equity, which they can later live and model themselves.

Gender must not be an isolated single issue, but a cross-cutting issue that brings about change in society as a whole.

terre des hommes switzerland supports and empowers young people with the psycho-social method so that they can help to bring about change in society. But young people cannot do this alone.

Of course not, this requires diverse efforts and united forces. Therefore, as mentioned, we do not only work with young people, but also involve their entire social environment. Only with the holistic approach can the change towards a more just and equal society take place in the long term.

The centers of power in a society are usually located outside the communities.

Of course, there also needs to be a functioning, democratic justice system so that laws are actually applied. For example, when a girl is raped at home - if we find out about it at all. In Latin America, for example, we support young women who campaign for the right to abortion. There are still many countries where abortion is a punishable offence. In the Las Mélidas project in El Salvador, we support young women who draw attention to this deplorable state of affairs and to the right of women to decide about their own bodies in public, often artistic and creative actions.

In our Sustainable Livelihood Projects, we not only support young men who want to start their own business. Young women should also be able to benefit from our training programs, which are offered, for example, by our partner organizations Centro Sabiá in Brazil and Centro Aberto de Jesus in Mozambique.

How does terre des hommes switzerland take into account the specific needs of girls and young women in its development cooperation?

In many cultures, it is still more natural for young men to receive support from their families and from the community on their way to independence. To ensure that young women have the same opportunities, we work with role models in our projects, or peer-to-peer work with their peers. These are then young women who, for example, have set up their own restaurant, pizza delivery or hairdresser's shop, or keep pigs and raise bees. Through their role model role as "strong girls" they make a contribution to future generations and their friends of the same age think: If she can do it, I can do it too!

On 8 March 2021, this year's International Women's Day, terre des hommes schweiz is drawing attention to the issue of gender-based violence (GBV). In doing so, we are focusing on the work of our South African partner organisation LifeLine. What are the reasons for the rampant sexual violence against girls and women in South Africa and southern Africa?

This is a question that has been on my mind a lot since I worked as a programme coordinator for terre des hommes switzerland in southern Africa from 2008 to 2016. I have asked this question again and again to our partner organisations in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. It is not easy to answer it and there is no definitive answer. Because there are very many factors that contribute to the high rate of gender-based violence in southern Africa, especially in South Africa.

A central role is certainly played by cultural values and a patriarchal society in which women are worth less than men and in which men define themselves through a macho self-image - the struggle for power is still the be-all and end-all of South African masculinity.

Other relevant factors are the lack of perspective of many people living in poverty. Men who have no possibility to feed their families sufficiently and who cannot afford financially to send their children to school are considered failures - and they feel like it. They do not live up to the internalized image of the all-powerful head of the family and feel worthless. Their undignified state leads to great frustration and the response is often an outbreak of violence, usually within their own family. GBV is often domestic violence, the perpetrator being the father, big brother or uncle.

Shortly after the outbreak of the Corona pandemic, victim support agencies and NGOs warned of an increase in violence against women. Is there a direct link between the health crisis and cases of gender-based violence? Is the pandemic driving up gender-based violence in South Africa?

On the one hand, the pandemic is a unifying factor. Covid-19 stops at no one. Whether poor or rich, well-educated or poorly educated - the virus goes around the world and stops at no one. The far-reaching consequences of the pandemic affect us all.

On the other hand, Corona is also a dividing factor. More privileged societies and classes can better afford to protect themselves against the virus, because they have more financial resources and secure jobs or unemployment insurance. In Switzerland, we can rely on a functioning and high-quality health system. Lockdown schooling continues, albeit homeschooling, and we unceremoniously move the home office to the holiday chalet. Of course, this does not apply to everyone in Switzerland, nor is it the case that Corona will simply pass us by without leaving a trace.

But those living in poverty in middle- and low-income countries have a much harder time during the pandemic. When children can no longer go to school because of the lockdown, they lack the main meal of the day that they normally receive there. Girls and women are exposed to family violence. The majority of adults who work in the informal sector and live hand-to-mouth can no longer support their families. And those who fall ill with the virus often do not have the necessary financial means to go to the doctor.

So the virus affects us all equally and yet there is a great inequality between the global north and the global south and between those who have it and those who do not.

In summary, Corona widens the gap between rich and poor. People living in poverty are more likely to be affected by violence, and people who are vulnerable or in a precarious situation are driven even more into poverty during the Corona crisis. So there is a link between poverty, violence and the health crisis.

Is it true that the pandemic in South Africa is leading to more cases of gender-based violence?

It is safe to say that there are more cases of GBV in South Africa during the pandemic. We know from our South African partner organization LifeLine that their services and their counselling programme for survivors of gender-based violence have been called upon much more frequently since the beginning of the pandemic and they have been busy beyond measure.

It is a time when many people in Switzerland are thrown back on themselves. Why should we now of all times free our minds and hearts for the situation of people in other countries and support the work of terre des hommes switzerland for young people in Latin America and southern Africa?

The coronavirus and currently the availability of vaccines exemplify what it is all about: there is only one world and we share it.

Many countries in Europe secured vaccine doses at a very early stage. In the meantime, however, there is also a bottleneck here and we in Switzerland are considering how we can move vaccine back and forth between the cantons. Our view is far too small-scale. We will not get this virus under control if we do not give everyone access to vaccination.

In exactly the same way, we will not live in a safe, peaceful and just world until we distribute the resources at our disposal fairly and all people have equal rights and access. The world is so interconnected today. We do not live on an island in Switzerland, but we are part of an interconnected, large whole. This obliges us to stand up for our fellow human beings.

Globalization also brings a lot of positive aspects, for example the exchange among each other. We can learn from each other, benefit from diversity - and sooner or later travel again. But it also brings responsibility: we must work together to ensure that everyone can share in this "happiness", well-being and prosperity.

The same is true with regard to gender justice: we must not only stand up for equal rights for girls and boys in Switzerland, but we must also fight for gender justice to be a reality all over the world. Because we will benefit enormously from it - from the great potential that girls, young women and also young men have in Southern Africa and around the world. But this potential can only unfold if we are willing to share our prosperity with others.

For me personally, there is only one way to contribute to this world: we support the disadvantaged and the weakest so that they can discover and exploit their own potential. This is the only way we can continue to work together on a good world for today and tomorrow.

Interview: Anna Wegelin

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