My work involves changing and challenging patriarchal norms that support violence and the means it uses to thrive in society. We’ve established that patriarchy uses violence to control women. As a gender activist and feminist, I have always been intrigued by the issue of violence and how it’s become normalised in our society. I am perturbed that the issue of violence, especially Gender-Based Violence (GBV) becomes public discourse only when there’s been a gruesome incident. Initially, our Gender Programme
focused on domestic violence. But, we soon realised violence is entrenched in all institutions and levels of our society. The violence is physical, emotional, financial and very much gendered.
On average, one in five South African women older than 18 have experienced physical violence. Thousands of women and children are psychologically harmed by gender-based violence and suffer long-term trauma and harm to their lives.
Our work addresses inequality, labour rights issues and violence and harassment at the workplace, with the aim of linking the lived experiences and working conditions of women to ensure they’re equal and pleasurable.
We create unique spaces for our target groups to work together developing strategies to deal with GBV and other issues affecting working women, men and non-gender conforming persons. People in these spaces feel respected, valued and safe to experiment with different approaches to building ownership and realising that the answers to problems are within us. When the space is safe, people feel free to share. As a result, painful and troubling stories emerge.
We didn’t plan to handle sexual harassment cases. But women who came to our meetings started linking sexual harassment to their rights to safety, promotion and decent work. A lot of the women said they still need to do certain things to access decent working conditions, jobs or a promotion. The women working in the retail and domestic sectors were the first to voice the issue of sexual harassment. Thereafter women in other sectors felt encouraged to speak out, and we realised the problem is pervasive.
For domestic and migrant workers, sexual harassment is the most peculiar for various reasons. The workplace for millions of domestic workers is also their bosses’ private home and space. A domestic worker who works alone in someone’s home becomes her own shop steward. It’s difficult for her to report abuses because she’d be accusing a perpetrator who’s in his or her own house and therefore in a more powerful position. And often the perpetrator of sexual harassment is the madam’s husband or a family relative. Because the domestic worker is the outsider, the madam might not automatically believe the allegation and act on it. Also, care work in itself isn’t valued by everyone, meaning you’re likely dealing with a boss who thinks the domestic worker should feel lucky to have the job. When this worker manages to lodge the case at the workplace, the union or a police station, she’ll then experience secondary victimisation.
Migrant workers are reluctant to approach authorities and report the harassment because they might not have the legally-required permits. When there’s harassment or unfair conditions, migrants often change jobs to avoid the radar of authorities and to escape callous employers. It’s a relentless cycle. The story told by one participant in our program speaks to the horrific working conditions for many migrants. She is a rape survivor who feels the nurses at the hospital denied her critical services due to xenophobia. She remembers the nurses asking her what she did to the rapists to attract such brutality. At that stage, she was victimised by the people she thought would protect her. How then can such a survivor believe it when we tell her that our constitution protects everyone? Still, we encourage survivors to report any violence so that we can connect them with relevant organisations. But, it’s not easy to find pro bono legal representation or organisations that can walk the long walk with survivors of abuse, let alone undocumented migrants.
Dealing with the trauma of others
So, as an individual, I still remain entangled in the process despite the collective of organisations and partners offering expert help. Even though I am not a trained counsellor, the survivor will often come to me for support. I can’t turn her away, and so I continue to offer the support I can and to help her to trust the process. A person who’s been violated needs to be believed and not blamed. She needs steadfast support because the healing journey is lonely.
From our work with the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration
(CCMA), we’ve learned that sexual harassment is a form of discrimination and that the cases aren’t surfacing enough. So, we’ve been speaking to women about sexual harassment and encouraging them to speak out. And because we’re doing the education, we’re the first people to hear about the abuses. The women come to us traumatized and afraid.
Often the horrific stories emerge not because of the training we do, but because the survivors feel safe to speak out in our spaces.
Besides sexual harassment, women are dealing with many other forms of violence in their private spaces. Some of the violence they experienced as children. I could be speaking to participants at a meeting about a sexuality issue that’s supposed to be fun and pleasurable, but for some people it triggers a painful memory. The women cry, but we don’t shut them up. We let them experience the moment as it unfolds. Culturally, it’s considered stoical to hold in our more tender emotions. Society has taught us that if you cry, we hug you and encourage you to stop crying. I think we need to let people that are hurting to cry.
I have learned to hold the deafening silence that sometimes follows the storytelling. As a facilitator, I need to hold those emotions and not neglect the other people in the room. Also, we integrate mind and body therapy that help survivors to deal with the trauma of violence. These tools help me to hold and calm down a traumatised person.
The distress we witness intrudes on my personal sense of security and wellbeing. The term for this situation is “vicarious trauma”. Sometimes called ‘compassion fatigue’, vicarious trauma describes the phenomenon generally associated with the ‘cost of caring’ for others (Perlman & Saakvitne, 1995).
Vicarious trauma is the emotional residue of exposure that counsellors have from working with people as they’re hearing their trauma stories and become witnesses to the pain, fear, and terror that trauma survivors have endured.
I am a woman who is exposed to suffering and distressful material during my professional or research work. It’s very difficult for me because it’s easy to internalise other people’s trauma. The question is, how can I as a facilitator become more resilient?
Firstly, I have learned the impact and symptoms of vicarious trauma
and recognise that I need to deal with it. Secondly, I have found immense help in psychotherapy and social and organisational support. Dealing with the pain of others is hard, but the emotions I endure are a reminder of the importance of our work. This work has helped me to grow and strengthened my emotional resilience for the future to respond effectively to the vulnerable.
It’s encouraging to see that gender-based violence initiatives in South Africa have gradually become impactful. I acknowledge the discourse on TotalShutDown movement
and the impact of that campaign. More women are speaking out and there’s now a sense of urgency to end violence against women and children. Women want accountability, access to equal opportunities and to live safe lives.