A Chat with Umba Zalira

December 3, 2023

BY Umba Zalira

Our communications coordinator, Alya, chatted with our member Umba Zalira, who’s based in Malawi, about the opportunities and challenges of going “beyond criminalization” when tackling GBV. Here’s what Umba had to say.

Photo credit: Jose Bernabe

Alya: Give a brief description of the project you are currently working on and the specific angle you’re taking for “going beyond criminalization” when it comes to gender-based violence.

Umba: I am currently working on a learning project providing technical support to Women Rights Organizations (WROs), the project aims to support the WROs through strengthening their capacity in providing support in response to survivors of violence including sexual exploitation, abuse, and harassment (SEAH), gender-based violence (GBV) and violence against women and girls (VAWG). The project uses a survivor-centric approach which encourages WROs to center the needs and decisions of the survivor and this has been a great unlearning experience for myself and the WROs as well. Perhaps in starting the conversations around alternative forms of justice and for those of us who have worked in this space for a while, the reimagination starts with asking ourselves: what does each individual survivor want or need when they come to us for help? Without imposing what we think is right to do in that situation, but rather stepping back and letting the survivor lead the process while we stand on the sidelines.

Alya: You mentioned that throughout this work, you’ve had to unlearn many things. Can you give a few examples of things you had to unlearn and what that process was like for you? 

Umba: I have had to unlearn so many things and the process is still ongoing. In my role I provide technical support to WROs and the unlearning is both at a personal level but also as a group. The main thing we have had to unlearn is the approach we were accustomed to using which is ‘pushing’ survivors down the various referral pathway systems instead of taking a step back and letting the survivor lead and make decisions for themselves. 

For me the process was interesting. It was a daily thing I had to remind myself of, like learning how to utilize a new skill or muscle. I have been reflecting on how new approaches are introduced to communities and practitioners. There is little to no room given to people to reflect and unlearn. It’s usually like ‘Oh that is not working, here is a better way of doing things!’ without any acknowledgement of how deeply indoctrinated people are to the other ways of working which we have also pushed on them. I have been thinking that perhaps there are better ways of getting our communities engaged in the processes of developing or introducing new concepts or approaches, leaving room for unlearning at a stable pace and documenting that unlearning future processes. 

Alya: How can young feminists who are working on GBV prevention support themselves in the process of unlearning the traditional tenets of this type of work? And how can they be supported by allies and older generations of feminists? 

Umba: First, it’s simply through putting yourself out there to stay updated on new approaches that are being developed, especially by African feminists within the continent. There are key platforms (such as SVRI) and organizations (Raising Voices) that are leading on research and new approaches to preventing and eliminating violence against women and girls. And something young feminists can also do is find ways of introducing these concepts to communities in a way that is collaborative and respectful of context, culture and previous efforts by movements in the field. Support from allies and the older generation of feminists will vary from place to place, depending on the nature of relationship that already exists between the groups but perhaps having reflective spaces where the two generations compare notes and share strategies is one way to go. There is a reason old approaches were used and I am sure some of them worked, so what are the learnings from that in our context? And how can we build on what has already been done? But also, what are the best ways to introduce new concepts or approaches within our communities to build from those gains without feeling like we are starting from scratch? These are all places to start. 

Alya: You speak about gaps in documentation, that in order for this work to be sustainable, feminists have to document the messy process of this trajectory. Can you talk a little about that? How do you imagine this documentation to look like if we are still far away from a consensus about the uses of criminalization in GBV prevention? 

Umba: I don’t know what the documentation will look like to be honest but we need to start having these conversations, so we define what prevention looks like in our communities while centering the voices and experiences of women and girls. These spaces need to be safe for us to unlearn and to come and say “yes we messed up, yes there are many ways to do this work and this is what works for us and what doesn’t.”

WROs would be key to this process. They are right in the communities closer to women and girls and have vast experience working on violence within the context of a project and outside. Perhaps that is where we can start with documentation, documenting the journeys of WROs through different projects and approaches and getting their input on what actually works and how best they can be supported to unlearn some of the harmful approaches of preventing violence and supporting survivors. 

And we don’t need a consensus on ending criminalization but what we can do now is start a conversation where we reflect whether the criminal justice system has worked for or against us and how we can start centering survivors in our work. 

Alya: What is one question you want young feminists to ponder about during this year’s #16DaysofActivism against gender based violence? 

Umba: What is working in your context and how can you amplify that while centering the voices and experiences of survivors?

And for the larger GBV community, it’s on reflecting how best we can empower and support women’s movements, especially WROs, to continue doing their work while maintaining the essence of movement building.