An interview with Dan Tyler, advocacy advisor for IRC
Sophie Harris and Laetitia Cooke talk to Dan Tyler, Advocacy advisor for the International Rescue Committee
The young woman in this photograph, Koffy Afa, is pregnant and has been abandoned by her boyfriend. Perhaps her feelings of rejection and loneliness are something that most of us can relate to. However, her situation is far more worrying. Not only has she been abandoned by her boyfriend but both her parents are dead and she is anxious for her survival. Unfortunately she is not alone.
This photo was taken as part of a collaboration between the International Rescue Committee (IRC) UK and the American photographer and women’s rights activist Ann Jones. A Global Crescendo: Women‟s Voices from Conflict Zones is an ongoing project which aims to give a voice to women in conflict zones, from Sierra Leone to the Cote d’Ivoire. The women were given digital cameras and asked to record their everyday struggles. It is a moving collection of photos which depicts the women‟s battle for independence within a largely patriarchal society.
Dan Tyler, advocacy advisor for IRC, spoke to us about the impressive work that he and the charity do to help women within conflict zones . Given that, even in our own culture, violence against women remains a taboo topic, we wondered how IRC begins to tackle this commonly silenced subject. “That is the challenge” agreed Tyler. “One thing to remember is that culture isn’t static. All the work that IRC does, from health care to long-term counselling for women, is community driven.” IRC does not impose any fixed solutions. Instead, the charity attempts to establish firm relationships with local people. “We don‟t preach or try and change local culture on moral grounds”, said Tyler. Furthermore, IRC recognises that in order to help the women within these communities it also needs to appeal to the men. For this reason, Tyler explained how the charity might approach the issue from a health or economic perspective, which would resonate with men as well as women.
The enormity of such a task could seem overwhelming. Tyler told us how IRC copes with the bigger picture. “IRC works on two levels. For example, in the DR Congo we have both international and national staff. 98% of the staff is national”. This means that there are representatives of the charity already working on the ground, within the communities. “When there was an eruption of fighting in North Kivu, we were already placed,” continued Tyler. “Of course, there was an immediate emergency humanitarian response, such as the distribu-tion of non-food items, shelter and assistance within the camps.” Neverthe-less, IRC is careful not to neglect the long-term problems affecting women. “We run health clinics within a number of areas in DR Congo, providing services to women who are affected by rape, for example”. It is an ongoing struggle.
So, what can an ordinary Oxford student do to help? Actually, quite a lot. Violence against women occurs with alarming regularity. It is a constant battle to help these victims and to change something that is so deeply ingrained within their society. As Tyler comments, “It is an unspoken conflict that doesn‟t get the immediate donor attention it should. During the fighting in DR Congo, people were very quick to donate money to support the provision of food and shelter”. However, people often forget that while violence against women is something that happens in times of conflict, it also carries on long after the conflict has ended. “Women who have been affected by violence need long-term care, whilst lots of donors think only of providing short-term fixes”, Tyler reminded.
Neither should we overlook the extent to which violence against women has much wider implications. The problem should be viewed as a breach of security. It impacts on economic development and stifles a country‟s ability to recover from conflict successfully. Anyone logging on to IRC’s website (www.ircuk.org) can learn more about how IRC works with women within these conflict-stricken communities. After seeing Anne Jones‟s powerful photos, we would hope that people will be inspired to donate money to these long-term, but equally, pressing problems. An exhibition of her photos will shortly be coming to London to raise further awareness of just how difficult life can be for women within these communities: watch this space. Perhaps we have painted a rather grim picture of the situation of some women within conflict zones. But change is occurring. Tyler enthusiastically tells us of the success of IRC’s work in Sierra Leone: “We found that people are talking much more about violence towards women whereas, ten years ago, this certainly wasn’t the case”. Indeed, there is one photo in Jones‟s collection that particularly sticks in the mind. It is of a husband and wife working harmoniously within their family.
“I took this photo of a family living as I imagine all families could”, commented Zogba Julienne, “The woman and husband are sharing the household work, and even the children are free to be children.” This photo is proof that, although there is still a long way to go, change is possible.
The International Rescue Committee (IRC) is a leading international relief and development organisation working with people and communities affected by conflict around the world. They work in over 28 countries worldwide, aiming to save lives, relieve suffering and rebuild communities, protecting rights and creating new opportunities. 2008 marks the 75th anniversary of the International Rescue Committee. Its major operational areas include responding to conflict in Georgia and disaster in Myanmar, as well as to continued unrest in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Middle East and Darfur.