Rose Wilcher, co-chair of the Interagency Gender Working Group’s Gender-Based Violence Task Force, recently spoke with Rachel Jewkes, Consortium Director of the What Works to Prevent Violence Against Women and Girls Global Programme. What Works, a program funded by the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID) from December 2013 through March 2020, worked in 13 countries across Africa and Asia to build the evidence base on drivers of violence against women and girls (VAWG) and what works to prevent VAWG. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Rose: What did the What Works initiative set out to accomplish when it started five years ago?
Rachel: What Works was set up by DFID to drive forward the agenda of prevention of VAWG. It recognized that if we are to meet the goal of preventing VAWG, we need to do more than respond to incidents of violence and support survivors, even though both are incredibly important. There was enough emerging evidence in the field that some prevention interventions were promising in the experimental settings where they were developed and tested, but there was a need for far more evidence. So, DFID set out to fund a program to support innovation, evaluation of innovative programs, and evaluation of programs that have been implemented but have not been rigorously evaluated.
Rose: What are some of the key learnings from this initiative?
Rachel: We’ve hugely increased our understanding of interventions that work to prevent VAWG, particularly in Africa and Asia, where there were notable gaps in the evidence base. We conducted 15 evaluations of interventions in different categories and saw interesting successes in difficult areas.
For example, with respect to prevention of violence against children, one very effective intervention in reducing corporal punishment and peer violence was the Positive Child and Youth Development Programme implemented in public schools in Pakistan by Right to Play. This intervention takes a play-based approach to empowering children and providing them with life skills over a couple of years. Peace Education, a school- and community-based social norms intervention in Afghanistan, also showed positive results, although it was not evaluated through a randomized controlled trial (RCT).
We also had promising results from gender transformative economic empowerment interventions. We combined Stepping Stones, a gender transformative intervention, with Creating Futures, a life skills intervention, and tested it in informal settlements in South Africa. Through this combined intervention, we saw reduced perpetration of violence by male participants. In Tajikistan, we focused on a family-centered intervention because young married women experience domestic violence from a range of people, and it was clear that families were the key economic unit. In this highly conservative context, it wouldn’t be acceptable for women to participate in an intervention on their own, so we invited two generations of the family, including both men and women, to the intervention, which combined building a family-centered, income-generating activity with a gender transformative intervention. We had very positive results, including reduced intimate partner violence, which have been sustained for 15 months post-intervention.
In Ghana, an intervention with community activists who were trained to work with couples affected by intimate partner violence, support survivors, and strengthen services in their communities had a positive impact on reducing sexual partner violence, as did a similar intervention with faith leaders and community activists in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Although we didn’t have an RCT for this intervention, we saw large reductions in violence with intensive programming over 28 months.
Lastly, we found that a gender transformative couples intervention in Rwanda was very effective in increasing equitable household decisionmaking and reducing depression among both men and women.
I would like everyone to take away our key message that prevention of violence is possible, and it can be done in programmatic timeframes.
Rose: How would you like to see this body of evidence that What Works generated used to strengthen policies or inform programming to end VAWG?
Rachel: I would like everyone to take away our key message that prevention of violence is possible, and it can be done in programmatic timeframes. We still hear people say “Yes, this is a problem but it’s something that you can’t change in your lifetime.” It’s incredibly important that we take away and disseminate the message that violence is preventable.
The second thing is: to prevent violence you need to have well-designed and implemented interventions. We developed a report, which is coming out soon, that provides an overview of all our interventions, and it ends with a summary of 10 core elements for design and implementation, which we’ve seen as key to interventions being successful. We’d like this report to be taken on board when people make funding decisions. A big concern is that as more money flows into the field we may find that we are still funding the wrong things. With What Works, we’ve shown that you need to have commitment from donors and practitioners to take the necessary time to design, recruit, and train the right staff properly, and make sure that the intervention is culturally adapted so that you’re positioned to have the maximum success.
Rose: What do you see as the major barriers to having this evidence readily applied in policy and practice?
Rachel: We need structural changes in the ways that funding for VAWG is approached. There is a tendency to fund short-term work—there are many donors who can give increasingly large amounts of money, but they attach a one-year timeframe to it. We, as a field, need to push back and say this doesn’t work for preventing VAWG. If you only have a year of funding, you can contextually adapt an intervention so you’re ready to go when you have adequate funding timeframes. But you can’t deliver meaningful violence prevention work with a year of funding. If you do push short-term timeframes, you place an incredible stress on the organizations that we need to scale up delivery, and you risk losing the very effectiveness that attracted a donor to fund that work in the first place. We need multiyear, three- to five-year minimum, funding cycles for this work because otherwise it can’t be done properly. If you want to do this work properly, business as usual must change.
Rose: Are there any key lessons from your work about other factors that need to be considered if organizations are planning to adapt and scale up some of the interventions you’ve tested?
Rachel: You really do need to contextually adapt interventions. Just because something has been shown to be effective in Uganda or Rwanda doesn’t mean it’s going to work in another setting. We need to take local cultural context into account, and we need to understand how it might affect how interventions need to be delivered. We need enough time to prepare interventions for local delivery and to adapt and test them before we take them into the field for scale up because we want to make sure that we get things right. We need to move more slowly through the initial stages.
We’ve also seen that participatory methods—group-based participatory methods—are much more effective than other methods for delivering interventions with adults or children. Also, there isn’t widespread knowledge about what facilitation means and how it’s different from didactic teaching. There’s a need to work with organizations that are good at training facilitators so we can ensure that the people who deliver our interventions are really equipped to do it.
Finally, if we’re going to deploy staff and volunteers to do work on VAWG, those people must be selected because they already walk the talk. There are some organizations that have cadres of staff who’ve been brought on board for other purposes, for example, community health workers. Those people may not be suitable VAWG prevention staff or volunteers. We can’t put people through a three-week training program and expect them to suddenly be well-versed and on board with gender equity concepts. We’ve seen that interventions work when the people who implement them are already gender equitable and nonviolent.
Even when the staff are committed to gender equity and nonviolence, there is a considerable need for staff capacity development. We assisted some of our partners with institutional strengthening and found that support in developing an understanding of how to build stronger, theoretically rooted interventions has been very valuable. We have shown that frontline staff need to be rigorously trained on gender, violence and the law, counselling survivors and affected couples, and communication and facilitation skills, as well as a deep understanding of the specific work they’ve been employed to undertake. Well-trained staff are essential for robust programming.
Rose: Did you identify any interventions that you would strongly recommend be discontinued in efforts to prevent VAWG?
Rachel: There are certainly practices that we discourage. With the exception of cognitive behavioral interventions, we’ve shown that short interventions (under about 30 hours) don’t work. The interventions need to be long enough, and sessions need to be optimally spaced, so participants build up an appetite for learning, retain information, and want to build on what they did from one session to the next. This is especially true for children—the more effective children’s interventions lasted two years because children take a long time to learn.
In highly patriarchal settings, putting the onus on women or trying to empower women to change their lives to prevent violence is asking too much of them. We had mixed findings for an intervention in Afghanistan, and we had no effect with an intervention in Bangladesh. We attribute this to the fact that we did not involve men in those interventions. We need to be really open to working with both women and men in more settings. We were very excited by the impact of our family-based intervention in Tajikistan. If we hadn’t included men and older generations, we wouldn’t have been successful. This doesn’t mean that interventions with women will never work, but we certainly found that interventions with women and men were much better.
Rose: Looking to the future, what do you think are the new research and practice priorities in this field?
Rachel: It’s essential that we move toward the question of scale up. We have to understand what happens when you take an intervention out of community laboratories and start disseminating it more widely, and we need to know what to do to retain effect. We may find that interventions implemented at a population level become more effective than they are now. There’s a body of learning around how to do this, and what we can achieve when we get into those processes of learning is very exciting.
It’s clear that certain interventions are better for certain populations. We don’t know much about what happens when you program multiple interventions for different populations in the same area. It’s quite important for us to understand that. Could you change social norms broadly across the community? What happens if you combine community activism with interventions to strengthen services and support for survivors and work with couples that are facing problems with intimate partner violence and mental health? It’s a much bigger impact.
Even though we’re very excited about the impact of our interventions and the work that’s being done by others in the field, none of our interventions are showing that we are eliminating VAWG. So, there is a big question of what it takes to go to zero. What do we need to do within communities and with civil societies to have the biggest leap forward to end VAWG?
Rose: On behalf of USAID’s Gender-Based Violence Task Force, thank you for speaking with us about the What Works to Prevent Violence Against Women and Girls Global Programme. We are pleased to share some of the important insights gained from this research initiative during the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, and hope that this work inspires and guides others working in this space, including advocates, implementers, policymakers, and funders.