Funding soap operas in Africa: how the UN thinks outside the box in tackling violence against women

As Chief of the United Nations Trust Fund to End Violence Against Women, Aldijana Sisic steers one of the most important efforts in developing countries around the world to eliminate violence, in all its forms, against women and trans people. She is also Campaign Manager of the Sectary General’s campaign to Stop Violence Against Women.

But violence is not always physical. The Fund has awarded $129million in grants since its founding in 1996, and tackles violence against women in all its terrible guises: psychological, financial, FMG, rape, child marriage and online.

In an exclusive conversation with Emerald’s founders, Steve Wardlaw and Heidi McCormack, Adijana explains the fund’s output, its hopes for the future, as well as her coming out memories as a younger person studying in London, which was when she first met Steve while working at Amnesty International UK, and while they were both competition ballroom dancers.

Steve Wardlaw: I’m conscious that you have two high-powered positions, and looking at the background to them, what can you tell us about the setting up of this project with the UN. How do your positions fit in with each?

Aldijana Sisic: My only job really should be Chief of the UN Trust Fund, because my previous job was the Campaign Manager of the Sectary General’s campaign to Stop Violence Against Women. But when I applied for this job, and when I got this job, they asked me to stay for just 6 months only, five years later I’m still in both jobs. It’s how it works, you know. And its tax payers’ money so we are always trying to save money wherever we can.

Heidi McCormack: What is the Trust Fund, why was it formed?

AS: You might know a lot about women’s rights because of Hillary Clinton. She made that famous statement in China in 1995, that was at a major conference in Beijing, and during that conference the governments looked at what are the critical concerns globally around human rights? One of them was identified as violence against women. Today, 1 in 3 women experience violence in their lifetime.

“Today, 1 in 3 women experience violence in their lifetime”

That’s not just physical violence. It’s identified as physiological to emotional, to financial violence. So, following that conference, in 1996, the UN General Assembly decided to create the Fund which would support civil society around the world in making a difference around violence against women in their own countries. Our main funders are member states and private sector, and they contribute to the Fund. Every year since 1996, we launch a call for proposals. We invite organisations from around the world who are working to end violence against women in their countries to apply for the funds. We then have a whole procedure that runs for 6 months in which we identify around 36 organisations to the value of $10-15 million, and that’s every year. We allocate those grants for the duration of two to three years, depends on the project. Over those three years we work with them by giving them the money and also to build their capacity. We are talking typically small organisations who have only been used to working with lower levels of funding. We give them, and it could be typically $100,000, and work with them for the three years, on issues ranging from organisation capacity, policy capacity or knowledge in terms of the human rights approach to ending violence against women.

SW: Do you have field workers delivering that knowledge, those skills?

AS: For each region, we have an in-location manager who is an expert on the area. And that person will work directly with the organisation receiving our grant. I will go on field trips and visit those grants. We are also doing something new this year; we are taking the donors on the mission so they can see where their money goes. And that is unique with us, because we work one on one, and because we build the capacity, we work to specific results. So, at the beginning of the project the organisations say, “this is what we want to achieve,” so the whole project is focused on the results. You can see, for example, why Difd is a big supporter of our work, because we can show change that has happened. If you want, we can show what change happens with that amount of money. This is from individuals with a small donation, right up to countries with big donations. We show them where their money is.

HM: Can you help us understand what are some of the issues that are regional, and which are across the board, regardless of geography?

AS: Violence against women per se is a global pandemic. That’s been identified by the WHO. The forms of violence differ. It can be domestic, it can be cyber. It can be FGM, it can be child marriage and rape. We see selective abortion, when a foetus is aborted because it’s not a boy. In some regions, you have honor killings, but you know, honor killings happen in Britain, as well as India.

“Violence against women is a global pandemic” 

SW: We are seeing acid attacks against women feature in the news more often, and that can be honour-based. Are you dealing with this type of issue in the UK, as well as places like Yemen?

AS: We don’t work in developed countries. We only work on the OECD list. We are looking at some options to change this, for instance, we don’t work in Russia. There’s a huge need, violence against women is a real issue in Russia, and the organisations don’t get so much support from the government or private sector there to tackle the issue. It’s seen as a soft issue there, as not important.

SW: Heidi was in Moscow for 25 years and did work on women’s issues, but that was as the head of an American company… there wasn’t much government support or international work on the ground…

AS: This is where our advantage is, which is recognised, because we are a UN fund; we can make that bridge between civil society organisations, government and private sector. All of our projects which are approved are situated under UN international human rights laws. As the UN, we are the guardian of international human rights law. We can therefore bring the grantees closer to governments to apply and oblige the governments to handle these, as signatories of international human rights. The point is, due diligence is the responsibility of governments. Governments must provide for all the people who live in a country – not just citizens, but refugees, migrants – that’s their obligation. We have active grants in 110 countries right now, that’s worth $60million.

HM: What are some of the grants that have gone out, and what are some of the changes that you are able to demonstrate?

AS: Well, we can show that we have opened first services in countries helping women who have experienced violence. We have opened shelters, so they can leave their husband and go somewhere. Also, we are providing education in Vietnam to young girls in schools teaching them about gender equality. We can measure their mindset from when they come to school, to when they leave the programme. We have funded grass-roots soccer training in Cape Town for young women, but through the programme, those women are learning also how to protect themselves from HIV, or in the case of violence what to do, or how to have healthy relationships. And changing laws in a country, we do that, too. Our grant programme focuses on three specific areas: securing multi-sector services for survivors – that’s providing shelter, legal advice, counselling, employment; prevention – that’s education, working with organisations to change curriculum, changing the schools and mind sets. You know, we have funded soap operas in Africa, that work on changing minds. We did that in South Africa, and that was then replicated in Nigeria. We know that people in the villages would repeat what was happening in a soap opera themselves. These are very specific, they are projects delivered on a village by village, town by town basis. But there is no other way working to end violence against women.

“They are projects delivered on a village by village, town by town basis. But there is no other way working to end violence against women”

HM: How does the Trust Fund work in partnership with the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, Zeid Raad, who I went to school with. I have always been a strong supporter, and he’s a dear friend since University.

AS: He is a great person, and we have professional links. That human rights umbrella is key. We report to him, because we are a General Assembly set up fund. Every year we have two reports we make. One is based on the rights of women, a key report, and one to the commission of human rights. So, we are under his umbrella.

HM: A lot of your work seems to be grass roots, and we have an idea of what is working… but what is not working?

AS: Changing the mind set of people, and that’s at all levels, even some survivors don’t see that what’s happened to them is violence. It’s easier to change younger generations, but changing mind sets of people is very hard. We need to bring men along as partners, not all men are there yet, but we are changing this. We have only looked at men as perpetrators to date – we need to change this and bring them in as partners to the task.

SW: Can I ask a little background on you? When I first met you, I was spending time in Croatia on an oil deal. You were already in the UK at the time, but am I right in thinking you were brought up in Sarajevo, and it wasn’t the most ideal place to be different. How was it coming out there?

AS: Well, I came out in London, actually. At the age of 30. The first time I came to London was when I was 22, I was an au pair, and I did it to learn English – like everybody does. But I had a love affair with London. I kept coming back in between the ages of 22 and 30, and then I happened to be in London when I turned 30. At that point, I came to London for a year, that time it was to learn English at an academic level – I wanted to do my PhD back in Bosnia, but I needed to learn English at a level I would fully understand 19th century feminist literature. It was too specific, and there were no translations to my language.

SW: I can’t imagine there’s a call for that sort of text in the Balkans…

AS: I happened to be in London when Sarajevo came under siege on 6 April 1992 and that prevented me from going back home. My intention was never to live abroad, but that’s when I realised, I’m here now. I hadn’t come out to my family, or personal friends, I’m only coming out to them no, actually.

SW: Wow.

AS: Well, because with some re-establishing connections after a long time. Of course, many of them are like, “yeah, we knew,” but also many of them in the meantime have lived abroad. They’ve broadened their horizons, probably some of their kids are gay. So, it’s like a different outlook on the world. If I said this 30 years ago, it would be a different reaction. So, that’s when I happened to come out. I was there (London), I had the lifestyle, then I started dancing, which is where I met you!

To keep up to date with the latest news about the Fund’s global work, visit their site, or follow Aldijana on Twitter