DIEPSLOOT, SOUTH AFRICA–For many women and girls, places typically perceived as safe like home, school or places of work and worship, are not a refuge from the violence that infiltrates their daily lives. In fact, these perceived places of safety are more often than not the nucleus of the abuse they endure. This horrifying reality underscores the need for “16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence” an international campaign to challenge violence against women and children. The campaign was initiated by the first Women’s Global Leadership Institute, held by the Center for Women’s Global Leadership (CWGL) at Rutgers University in 1991.
It runs each year from 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, to 10 December, International Human Rights Day. During this period of time, thousands of organizations and state governments across the world pause to take collective responsibility for the problem and examine what must be done to not simply challenge the violence that persists, but to eradicate it.
The situation in South Africa is certainly no exception. Outside of a war-zone, South Africa boasts the highest incidences of violence against women in the world. Research shows that one in five women over the age of 18 has experienced violence in her lifetime. Another recent study estimated that one out of six women in South Africa is regularly assaulted by her partner and, in at least 46% of these cases, the men involved also abused the children living with the women. These statistics multiply in the poor and marginalized communities that make up much of South Africa’s landscape. For the women living in these communities, the violence they endure has become normalized within their communities and, tragically, is an expected part of life.
These women need a sanctuary, an advocate that stands beside them as they fight for equality, justice, and, above all, to live lives free from the violence that traps them. For them, Lawyers against Abuse (LvA) is often a beacon of hope in a seemingly hopeless situation. LvA is a non-profit organization that provides free legal services and psychosocial support to victims of gender-based violence (GBV), including rape, domestic violence and child abuse. In addition to these direct services, LvA places a strong emphasis on community engagement – employing a dedicated team to educate community members about their legal rights and available remedies to combat GBV – and state actor accountability.
From 2014, LvA has operated a center in the heart of the Diepsloot community. Diepsloot, an informal settlement located north of Johannesburg, is home to over 500,000 people and known for its lack of infrastructure, abject poverty and high levels of GBV. Recent research revealed that prevalence rates in Diepsloot are more than double in other parts of the country – with 56% of men surveyed enacting violence against women with the past 12 months. Despite these overwhelmingly high rates of violence, LvA remains the only organization in the community offering specialized services to victims of violence. To date, LvA has provided services to over 700 GBV victims and reached over 20,000 community members through various community outreach initiatives.
This year, for 16 Days of Activism, LvA will be hosting a community event with the theme “You Are Not Alone” to raise awareness of GBV within the Diepsloot community and available support services. One of the reasons this event is so exciting is because it has been conceptualized, planned, and executed entirely by LvA’s Community Action Groups (CAG) .
These Action Groups are made up of young women and girls who have completed LvA’s GBV Workshop Series that seeks to identify the deep-seated attitudes and social norms that lead to violence and provide participants with the tools to challenge those harmful attitudes and practices that perpetuate violence. At the same time, participants are encouraged to find and implement creative and effective solutions to the drivers of violence in their community. Upon completion of the workshop series, participants are invited to join an existing CAG or form a new one which provides a platform to utilize what they’ve learned and act as change agents within their communities.
To date we have created two Action Groups comprised of over 30 individuals – many of whom are community thought leaders and activists in their own right, allowing their impact to be magnified. Many of them have also experienced violence personally, fueling their drive to create positive change in their community. These powerhouse women have taken it upon themselves to lead the change that must happen in Diepsloot in order for future generations to live in a world free of violence.
On November 30, these two groups will come together to challenge the patriarchal norms, behaviors and attitudes that perpetuate violence and to share with their community a message of hope. To stand with other victims and reassure them that they are not alone in their abuse and that they no longer have to endure their trauma in silence. Group members will share their stories through poetry, song, drama and other forms of expression. They will be joined by one of the LvA’s other community intervention groups who will be performing a drama about GBV and engaging with the audience around solutions. They will also be joined by other Diepsloot stakeholders and services providers to ensure that those in attendance are aware of all the existing services that can offer them support.
In the weeks leading up to the event, group members have taken to the streets of their community to engage their neighbors on a one-on-one basis through door-to-door campaigns, educating them about available legal right and remedies around GBV and inviting them to attend the upcoming event. These young women feel proud to associate themselves with LvA, but even more so, they feel empowered to create positive change in their community. I am confident that they will continue to work to ensure their message extends beyond a one-day event or a 16-day campaign. But rather, that this event represents a new start which can have larger and larger ripple effects throughout Diepsloot.
For the team at LvA, we do not focus on addressing systemic violence for just 16 days of the year. Rather, each and every day, we see another victim walk through our doors. Every day we hear stories – ranging from heartbreaking to horrifying – about the abuse taking place at our doorstep. Every day we are in the community educating and empowering women to help break the cycle of abuse and fight for the justice they deserve. Doing this work 365 days a year is hard and certainly takes its toll. But when I see women like our Community Action Group members come together to be the drivers of change in their own community, I know we are doing something right and that change is possible.
Lindsay Henson is the executive director of Lawyers against Abuse (LvA). Ms. Henson holds a law degree from Harvard Law School and a B.S. from the University of California, Los Angeles and before joining LvA, Henson worked with NGOs in India, Bangladesh, and the Philippines working on GBV and other human rights issues.
photos: 1) CAG members by Ginanne Brownell Mitic; 2) CAG member talking to member of Diepsloot community, courtesy LvA