Michelle Slawinski, Biological Scientist IV for the Florida Department of Health
Michelle Slawinski currently works for the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County as a Biological Scientist IV and has worked in varied capacities with impoverished populations at both a domestic and international level. She earned her MPH at University of South Florida College of Public Health, a Center of Excellence in Maternal and Child Health, where she was a MCH Scholar. She is interested in understanding the biosocial approach to health, particularly infectious disease-food insecurity syndemics, and building capacity among women, children, and families’ at-risk for contracting and transmitting infectious disease. Prior to moving to the Tampa Bay Area, Michelle lived in South Carolina where she worked on evaluating sexual violence programs and increasing contraceptive use across the state. In her free time, she enjoys rescuing new plant babies and visiting dog friendly businesses with her partner, Tim, and mutt, Porter.
Please be advised that this piece references forms of violence against women.
If you or someone you know has been affected by domestic violence please call 1-800-799-SAFE,visit the National Domestic Violence Hotline or find more information in the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence Resource Guide. In addition, if you or someone you know are a survivor of sexual assault, resources can be found by calling 1-800-656-HOPE or visiting the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.
You are not alone.
The time I spent in Uganda was short-lived, yet profoundly complex. As a Field Research Officer at the Papoli Community Development Foundation, I completed a ten-week internship in Papoli Parish, Tororo District located in Eastern Uganda. Although one could say my field experience was non-traditional, it was here that I truly began to transform into a women’s rights advocate, strengthen my equity-centered leadership, and gain a stronger sense of voice. The intricate power dynamics, violence against women, and corruption that I witnessed were all heavily influential elements. Even after my experience, I find that social platforms serve as a strong catalyst for women wanting to speak out against their oppressors; through this driving force I look to fight injustice and empower women, children and families in poverty both from a domestic and international standpoint. To do this, we must examine the current techniques and strategize constructive avenues of communication that not only provide women a platform to be heard but also to propel women into leadership positions.
As an American woman, I had never felt or experienced gender inequality to the degree that I witnessed in Uganda. Although I have watched legislators fight to abolish abortion and suppress women’s reproductive rights, I have never seen women wince in fear as their oppressor entered the room or plead through social media about the beatings that they had endured on the side of the road, sentencing them to weeks in the hospital. Between witnessing the fear in these women, the sour distrust in the government due to corruption, and money laundering, I began to lose hope. Rather than giving up, I used these experiences to fuel my passion towards understanding how violence and poverty exacerbate one another.
To address violence against women, we first must take a step back to understand who are most at-risk for experiencing violence and oppression. Who are these women? Can I be described as one? Can you? Several studies have referenced the answer – those in poverty.1,2,3 At first glance, it seems so simple but the layers that encompass this issue run deep and can depend on which global region a person calls home. Poverty no longer is defined only by income status, instead, multidimensional poverty looks at indicators in health, education, and standards of living.4,5As a society trying to improve how people define their health and well-being, we must use these elements as a lens when analyzing and interrupting this cycle of violence.
To date, interventions mainly focus on tertiary approaches, which are applied after the fact to soften the long-term impacts of violence against women. Although these are important measures, current efforts such as the Rape Prevention and Education (RPE) Program work to shift the conversation on sexual assault to upstream preventative approaches and focus less on these risk reduction measures. Continuing with the stream analogy, even these collective actions must consider extending themselves further upstream to a place where social platforms can identify and propel women out of poverty. To do this, I present a few examples that are either already embedded with forms of communication to address violence and empower women from a framework of poverty or have the potential to be expanded.
Tarana Burke, the founder of ‘me too,’ an organization established in 2006 that launched the viral #MeToo movement in 2017, continuously strives to not only uplift communities but also tear down stigma that surrounds the act of surviving sexual violence. This movement takes one step further in incorporating a social platform to address violence against women. Although not directly impacting poverty or pulling women from the trenches of low socioeconomic factors, it provides a voice for all genders to congregate and speak out against their oppressors. In a similar capacity to #MeToo, #MinisterMondays was launched in 2011 by Dr. Agnes Binagwaho, Rwanda’s former Minister of Health and current Vice Chancellor at the University of Global Health Equity. This hashtag drove a chain of biweekly discussions on Twitter that looked to inform and educate citizens of Rwanda on issues that encompass poverty. These issues examined programs and policies addressing vaccinations and medications, malnutrition, maternal and child health, family planning practices, and global health equity.
Programs that address and empower individuals living in poverty include Digital Green, I Paid A Bribe and microfinancing groups. Digital Green’s mission is to “empower smallholder farmers to lift themselves out of poverty by harnessing the collective power of technology and grassroots-level partnerships.” They develop and distribute community videos offered in numerous languages around the world and ensure this information saturates across all genders by providing it to women extension agents who are often leaders of women farmer development groups. On a separate indicator of poverty, I Paid a Bribe tackles the standpoint of systemic corruption. This organization, which operates now in over fifteen countries, is driven by its citizens and offers a “collective energy” to create a public debate and pressure officials to end corruption. Lastly, microfinancing programs continue to remain successful. During my time in Uganda, I assessed orphan children’s well-being factors (e.g., health, education, food security). I had learned through the parents/guardians that Papoli Parish once had a strong women’s microfinancing group and its absence was suggested to contribute to the children and families’ poor health outcomes. Specific microfinancing organizations such as the Women’s Microfinance Initiative have provided women who have no access to banking services with small, collateral-free loans. The idea being that these impoverished women in developing nations can generate small businesses to produce a stable income. Although this concept does not involve a social media avenue, it not only develops strong relationships among women in the community but also it empowers women within their own household.
These examples encompass collective action through social platforms and methods of empowerment to address violence against women using a poverty lens. Returning to the root cause of violence against women – poverty – as the Ambassador of The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ethiopia, Lulit Zewdie Gebremariam, once suggested “was the main obstacle to the full realization of women’s equality” and manifested itself in “poor health, low levels of education, lack of access to potable water, food insecurity and unemployment.”4 As a society we must keep in mind poverty as we approach violence against women and remember to incorporate communication methods like social platforms and collective actions into solutions.
We are heard. We are empowered. We are unstoppable.
- Terry, G. (2004). Poverty reduction and violence against women: Exploring links, assessing impact. Development in Practice, 14(4), 469-480. doi:10.1080/09614520410001686070
- Ogrodnik, C. (2011). Women under attack: Violence and poverty in Guatemala. Journal of International Women’s Studies. Journal of International Women’s Studies, 12(1), 55-67. Retrieved from http://vc.bridgew.edu/jiws/vol12/iss1/4
- United Nations Development Programme. (2019). Global multidimensional poverty index 2019: Illuminating inequalities. Retrieved from http://hdr.undp.org/sites/default/files/mpi_2019_publication.pdf
- United Nations. (2002). Violence against women linked to poverty, armed conflict, third committee told, as discussion of women’s issues concludes. Retrieved from https://www.un.org/press/en/2002/gashc3698.doc.htm
- United Nations Women. (2014). Women and poverty. Retrieved from https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/in-focus/end-violence-against-women/2014/poverty