Sitting in the offices of Lawyers Against Abuse (LvA), Thelma Mwale, 23, said that before she joined the organization’s Sexual Violence Workshop last spring, she did not understand much about abuse.
“Before I used to judge people, like if a woman was being beaten up I was like ‘maybe she did something wrong,’” she said from Diepsloot, an area north of Johannesburg, South Africa. “I have a friend who has been abused for almost three years now [so] that is why I was so interested and I want to get her out of that abusive relationship.”
A number of her other workshop colleagues agreed, including Masello Chauke, 24, who said that being a woman in the very volatile informal settlement of Diepsloot was a trying and difficult existence. “We are living in a community that normalizes violence,” she said. “I think the other big challenge is independence. As women we depend mostly on men so for most of us, it is not easy to get out of an abusive relationship because of the level of poverty.”
While LvA — which is unique to the community in that it offers free legal services like filing protection orders and psychosocial support — has been running these four-day workshops quarterly for two years, Chauke and Mwale, along with a dozen or so other women, are part of the newly launched Community Action Groups (CAG) program.
CAG will allow those who have completed the workshop — since 2015 there have been 280 participants — to continue their education around empowerment, human and legal rights, leadership and outreach on issues around abuse, gender roles and sexuality. Since forming in the summer, this first CAG cohort has been meeting once a week.
In late August they spent three hours at a local Diepsloot mall providing information and advice around the issue of violence towards the LGBT community and those with disabilities.
Their next project will be centered around the international "16 Days of Action against Gender Based Violence” campaign that runs from Nov. 25 to Dec. 10.
Diepsloot, with an estimated population of 500,000, is what is referred to in South Africa as an informal settlement, different from townships that were purposely set up by the Apartheid government. Those towns include sanitation, electricity and some social services. This post-Apartheid slum, which grew up in the mid-1990s after a flood in a nearby township forced people to relocate, has been dubbed “the reception” because of the mass influx of undocumented immigrants and refugees from places like Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Lesotho who often have little choice but to settle here when they first arrive in Johannesburg.
According to a more recent report by the United Kingdom-funded What Works to Prevent Violence Against Women and Girls program, 54 percent of men in Diepsloot admitted using violence against women. Of those men, 60 percent committed violent acts towards women multiple times.
The majority of abused women in Diepsloot have a hard time figuring out where to go for help, according to Jean Elphick, the general manager of empowerment programs for South African youth NGO Afrika Tikkun.
“For me, someone who has a PhD, a phone with air time, a car and Internet access, it is a mission for me in Diepsloot to go and figure out how to find things,” she said, “so just imagine a single mother who is in a desperate situation living in abject poverty. It’s impossible.”
That the violence is often gratuitous (in 2013, two toddlers were raped, killed and their bodies thrown in a toilet) comes from a number of factors including substance abuse, food insecurity, antiquated views on gender, and a lack of jobs and social services.
Many men — and women — believe that once a man has paid lobola, or a dowry, for a woman, he owns her. “Many women in the workshops have been the ones defending the norms saying ‘no, a woman’s place is in the kitchen and yeah, if you were disrespectful than he has the right to smack you around and keep you in line,’” said Lindsay Henson, the executive director of LvA.
Founded in 2011, LvA first took on ad hoc cases across the country before finding a permanent base in Diepsloot a few years later. The team started out by focusing on response, but soon found they also needed to work on engagement.
“Unless you start to address these very harmful attitudes, beliefs, stereotypes, norms around gender and sexual orientation, [you] are always going to be on the response side,” said Henson.
Now the four-day workshops, which include discussions on violence, sexual orientation, legal processes and meditation, have become an vital part of what the organization does.
“Not everybody knows about the technical or nitty-gritty of these issues [and] it also exposes young people to the knowledge that there is help out there,” said Mzwakhe Khumalo, a research coordinator with NGO Sonke Gender Justice. “What is even more important is with the action groups, now you have people saying ‘we want to do this, we want to stay engaged long term.’”
Henson said that CAG will offer more intensive training going forward (the next one will be on sexuality). They’ll also focus on outreach in the community and the ongoing development of participants to become female leaders.
“At our event in August people were saying to me, ‘what you are doing is wrong and we do not want gays in our community’ and we had to change their mindset,” said Mtokoto Keswa, an 18-year-old member of CAG.