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MSW student Natasha Holt spends summer in Bangkok as Peace Fellow

Hailing from Victoria, Australia, UNC School of Social Work master’s student Natasha Holt developed a passion for social justice as a child, listening to the stories of her family who had experienced injustice living in Russia and Ukraine. As a young person she explored social and youth issues within her community by creating a radio program, and through participation in theater and other arts-based projects.

With a background in creative media and gender studies, Holt pursued her interest in social justice with a move to China. As an Australian Youth Ambassador for Development, she assisted in the implementation of an HIV/ AIDS information exchange program in Beijing, where was exposed to clients who had been trafficked for sex. She was deeply moved by the struggles of those who had experienced sexual and gender-based violence, as well as discrimination due to their HIV status. This was a defining moment in cementing her commitment to working in the field of sexual health.

Holt has also completed six months of work in the red-light districts of Bangkok, Thailand, working to increase the access to sexual health and rights-based services for male and transgender sex workers. As a Rotary World Peace Fellow, she hopes to pursue the promotion of peace by supporting greater HIV/AIDS awareness, improving research and advocacy in the areas of gender-based and sexual violence and by addressing social justice issues in developing and post-conflict countries.

This summer, she went back to Bangkok from May 13 to July 25 for an internship at the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Regional headquarters. As a Peace Fellow, her concentration is trauma healing. She is also a sexual health provider and sex educator, and did outreach with sex workers in Bangkok during this time.

Holt’s MSW concentration is macro, and she is also interested in both direct practice and community engagement with a focus on gender-based and sexual violence. Her aim is to work on sexual violence in emergency and post-conflict settings.

The following is a blog post she wrote while in Bangkok.

Responding to Violence Against Women and Girls in Asia Pacific

By Natasha Holt

My life in Bangkok has begun by navigating my way through narrow streets, filled at all hours with motorbikes, tuuk tuks and cars all trying to carve out their own space as I nimbly dash across, usually following other pedestrians, for fear that a lone foreigner may not survive. The thick, humid air is spiked with scents of meat roasting over charcoal pits, hanging flowers and the smell of the approaching rain. The sheets of monsoonal rain pour down and cleanse the city that never sleeps, cutting the otherwise dense air, while I dart between the market stalls and street food vendors that line the roads around my apartment, finding short cuts through quiet lane ways and stopping to sample the various treats on display. I am free to experience these new wonders, to make new friends, to explore my life as a Peace Fellow on the road during my Applied Field Experience (AFE). Many women and girls, however, are not afforded the same opportunities. The right to choose their path has been constrained by violence. Gender-based violence occurs across the globe and takes many forms including; sexual violence, forced and early marriages, female genital mutilation, honour killings, trafficking and most commonly, intimate partner violence (IPV) which may involve physical, sexual and/or emotional abuse. Gender-based violence constrains not only women’s rights to live free from violence and abuse, but the rights to livelihood, education and health. For, how can a woman choose whether, when or how often to have children when she is denied the right to choose whom she marries and denied the opportunity to consent to sex?

Addressing these issues, as a peace builder and healer, has brought me to work at The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Regional headquarters in Thailand. UNFPA promotes the right of every woman, man and child to enjoy a life of health and equal opportunity. UNFPA supports countries in using population data for policies and programmes to reduce poverty and to ensure that every pregnancy is wanted, every birth is safe, every young person is free of HIV/AIDS, and every girl and woman is treated with dignity and respect

The Asia Pacific region presents an alarming rise in the incidence of violence and abuse, including in humanitarian emergencies and post conflict settings. Gender-based violence is a major and preventable public health problem. The health care system is the only institution that interacts with almost every woman at some point in her life and international research has consistently shown that women living with violence visit health services more frequently than non-abused women. Health service providers, especially, those serving in accident and emergency wards and in women’s health settings such as reproductive and sexual health, maternal child health and prenatal settings, have a critical role to play in detecting, referring, and caring for women living with violence. Interventions by health providers can potentially mitigate both the short and long-term health effects of gender-based violence on women and their families. There is, therefore, a great need to sensitize health service providers on gender and gender-based violence and enhance the capacity of health systems to respond effectively and sensitively to GBV, and to play an important role within a multi-sectoral framework.

The first global guidelines on the integration of gender-based violence in the health system was published by The World Health Organization in early 2013 and, using these standards, UNFPA will build the capacity of national staff and partners to adopt these standards and related ethical and safety guidelines in national initiatives.

My role over the course of my three-month AFE is to map the progress of the health sector in all countries across the region, in strengthening their approach to responding to gender-based violence. To prevent and respond to violence against women and girls all sectors of our society must work together. We must foster and inform prevention programs and advocate for the recognition of gender-based violence as a major public health issue, in the hope that little girls everywhere can grow up free from violence and abuse, able to choose their own adventures!