Combating Violence from the Community

Por Dalia Acosta

Zulema Hidalgo
Zulema Hidalgo

HAVANA TIMES, Dec. 2 (IPS) – With more than a decade of experience working in the community, Zulema Hidalgo thinks that citizens in Cuba are vitally concerned about violence. Moreover, she believes that actions to counteract it must include the promotion of lifestyle changes.

The coordinator of the Gender and Violence Program of the non-governmental Oscar Arnulfo Romero Reflection and Solidarity Group (OAR), Hidalgo has worked with other coordinators from that organization in several Havana communities in which social problems and varying degrees of vulnerability have accumulated.

Among the actions promoted by OAR has been the organization of men’s groups against violence, the training of popular educators and community leaders, basic workshops on gender for community organizations, and discussions on issues such as race and masculinity.  These are always approached revolving around citizens’ participation.

With this being its fourth consecutive year serving as facilitator of Nonviolence Day (which this year began on November 4 and will extend to December 17), the group OAR seeks to contribute to the sensitization of Cuban society to the recognition, prevention and social rejection of gender violence.

Hidalgo assured in an interview with IPS that the community has a fundamental role to play.

IPS: Do you believe the community can play a leading role in the struggle against gender violence and violence in general?

ZULEMA HIDALGO: The community is where people coexist day to day, experiencing the good and the bad, and what happens outside their homes.

But the community also has to do with one’s family, the relationships between neighbors and the development of citizens.  Therefore, violence is concentrated, visible and manifested in all its magnitude there, though it’s the result of multiple causes.

Zulema Hidalgo:"The groups should be mixed, working appropriately so that the essence of the debate is not lost, and using methodologies that contribute to the understanding of those relations."
Zulema Hidalgo: "The groups should be mixed, working appropriately so that the essence of the debate is not lost, and using methodologies that contribute to the understanding of those relations."

Initiatives and processes must be developed in these community settings to involve the whole society in solving the problem.  To tackle it requires the participation of institutions and social organizations.

There are communities that need the support of institutions and specialists that can attend to these processes, but the leading role of the community itself must be respected in its solving its own problems and assuming its responsibilities.

IPS: OAR has worked for years in Havana communities identified as being vulnerable to the concentration of social problems.  What’s your evaluation of the situation in those communities?  What are the most common expressions of violence?

ZH: Violence is reflected in multiple ways in Cuban communities, be they urban, semi-urban or rural.  They all have their ways of expressing violence.  What is important is that we find ways to identify and minimize that type of behavior.

Physical aggression is the type most noticed and suffered by people.  However, Cuba has a major problem with psychological violence.  It is the most masked because people have learned how to defend and justify their behavior.

Psychological violence is more aggressive and more widely seen in many communities. Likewise, gender violence cuts across all of the other recorded typologies.

I worked for years in very specific communities in the city of Havana.  In the beginning, to speak of violence was a matter of particular interest only to the scientific community, which carried out efforts to identify and solve this problem that Cuba has suffered for a long time.  More recently we’ve noticed greater concern by a host of diverse organizations and institutions.

There is community-level concern that Cuba doesn’t become like other countries: a place where gang violence and other more aggressive types of brutality exist.  But it’s not enough to identify and mention violence; it’s necessary to delve deeper into the process and not see this only as a form of activism, but as a change in one’s life.

IPS: What is being done to counteract violence in all its expressions?

ZH: My organization has worked with the philosophy of achieving -along with the community- a process of consciousness-raising: where people recognize and understand the diverse myths and beliefs that surround them, as well as those that have to do with cultural traditions, and within it, those related to femininity and masculinity.

We try to make certain commitments in the community to sustain our work.

Later, we undertake a training process to coordinate innovative initiatives that the community proposes to solve the problem of violence.  In this way, we want it to be understood that it is everyone’s problem, that it is not specific to an organization or certain health institutions.

We are working with the citizenry so that people understand that it is their duty to do things for the good of their society, starting with a new way of living…a culture of peace.

A culture of peace must be internalized in one’s behavior and attitudes, and understood as being based on their very rights as citizens.

IPS: What is lacking?

ZH: What could be lacking is the introduction of the issue in strategic institutional plans.  Schools must include it as a basic element in their teaching mission and routine.

When professionals are trained, the category of gender could be a subject that serves to identify the social inequities that we have.  If we are members of mass organizations, these aspects should be part of their political tasks.

It is also necessary to advance the introduction of these concerns through the media.  The issue of violence is only talked about when campaigns are carried out, and not even everything that we would like is raised.

Now there has been an opening through the local “Canal Havana” television station, but we could do much more since mass media forms such as television make a tremendous impact.

There’s also a need for a better use of public spaces, where messages about nonviolence could be placed.  When we go to the community, people ask us, “Where have you been?” – as if this were the first time they’d seen messages about this issue.

We’re aware that ours are not the only messages raised in the community; there are other organizations that do it but their work doesn’t reach the people.

IPS: Generally, when one speaks of gender violence, you think of women, and work is usually done with them.  Can progress be made on this road without working with men? What’s been the experience of OAR?

ZN: In OAR, we work with both sexes. The groups should be mixed, working appropriately so that the essence of the debate is not lost, and using methodologies that contribute to the understanding of those relations.

It’s also necessary to do work with independent groups of women and groups of men, to help the men socialize their problems, because they don’t have a culture of verbalizing their concerns before a group.

Since both sexes are part of the problem, they must both seek the solution to this hegemonic culture.  Patriarchal culture is not only a matter of men, women have also sustained it.

It is necessary to prevent the victimization of the woman or that she victimizes herself, because this is something that has indeed happened.  It’s necessary to think of new forms of how to dismantle that type of thinking.

As women, when we’re in a group at work, we always surrender power to the men, for the sake of convenience or because it’s easier.  We must learn how to distribute that power that traditionally has been given solely to the man.

OAR’s Role

The Oscar Arnulfo Romero Reflection and Solidarity Group defines itself as an organization of Cuban civil society, one of Christian inspiration and having a macro-ecumenical orientation.  It is an organization that seeks neither to make money nor participate in religious proselytism.  It is made up of men and women of various social sectors who profess various expressions of faith and varied philosophical concepts.

OAR emerged in 1985 as a group reflecting on the role of Christianity in society.  At the beginning of the 1990s it identified the need to contribute to the development of the nation from the specificity of its faith as a member of the Cuban Council of Churches and based on the recognition of diversity and respect for others.

Since then, “displaying types of aggression, different forms of negligence and dereliction, learned and transmitted ‘norms’, and moral and physical harm have been constants in the work of the organization.  Among its objectives has been the facilitation of training on current socio-cultural challenges from within the civil, religious and community environment.”

(Havana Times translation from the original IPS text in Spanish)