Turning the tide on gender-based violence and femicide in South Africa


Thokozani Ndaba, the Founder and Executive Director of Ntethelelo Foundation, lives in a country that has one of the highest rates of gender-based violence and killings in the world. According to the latest data, every single day the police receive over 100 cases of reported rape. Last year alone, 2,700 women and over 1,000 children died at the hands of another person.

Two women hug as they leave a protest against violence against women, following the murder of 19-year-old student Uyinene Mrwetyana, September 2019, Johannesburg, South Africa@ Guillem Sartorio/AFP

In the township of Alexandra, located on the outskirts of Sandton, South Africa – the professed richest square mile in Africa – tarred roads turn into dirt, snaking their way between small homes that are erected from corrugated iron and other easily scrounged materials. The stark contrast in inequality is palatable.

Gender-based violence is also a regular occurrence, with compounded vulnerability in areas with high socio-economic inequality commonplace. It is in this place that Ndaba, a theater practitioner, human rights activist and performer, set the Ntethelelo Foundation. Her work comprises activism, education, and research.

Finding community, self-love and respect

Ntethelelo means “forgiveness”, one of the values that Thokozani tries to instill in young girls who , despite the negative events in their lives, are dignified human beings, have human rights as their birth right, and can overcome any situation and be successful in their life.

The Foundation includes a programme that runs after school from Mondays to Wednesdays. Young girls between 12 and 17 attend the programme, where Ndaba uses Theatre of the Oppressed as a facilitation tool to help them build resilience and values rooted in self-love and self-respect. The small cement hall that also serves as an aftercare for young children is the safe space that Thokozani creates for the girls.

Despite the gender-based violence that permeates communities, the girls find community in one another. Risks of sexual assault present themselves every day; when walking to or from school, past a tavern where the girls are catcalled and touched, walking to the communal toilets at night, or even in their own homes. Despite such horrors, one of the girls says “wounds make a person stronger” and “darkness is followed by light.”

A safe space to tell their stories

The Ntethelelo Foundation provides a safe space where the girls can dialogue about their issues of concern freely to one another and establish relationships of trust. One of the girls from the foundation was recently raped by her mother’s boyfriend; she is only 14 years. Her attacker damaged her, but still she has to go school and write exams, and accessing counselling is a struggle.

“There’s no justice in this country for women, children and for the poor. We have no rights,” Ndaba says.

Ndaba also uses yoga and performance to teach girls lessons of respect and love. Every day has a different schedule and provides structure in the lives of young women who are at risk of teenage pregnancy and alcohol and drug abuse. The community created is invaluable, as each girl understands the nuance of the struggle that the other faces, including the struggle of being able to make friends at school.

“At school they laugh at us and say we do not have flushing toilets,” one girl says, speaking about her experience of bullying at a school, including by children from neighboring areas. They are also told they “smell of paraffin,” adds another and the girls nod in agreement. Their voices of despair and pain grow louder. “We don’t have a playground and when we go to the park, they steal our phones and our sisters.” The impact on the girls’ self-esteem has become deeply rooted, increasing the likelihood of succumbing to peer pressures around the use of drugs and unprotected sex in order to be accepted.

Ndaba encourages the girls to use creative writing techniques to speak about their ordeals and as an outlet for their emotions. Through poetry, an image is painted of domestic abuse, sexual violence, and bullying – an unexpected depiction of a young girl’s life.

Women and girls “under siege”

Still, the reality of sexual violence in South Africa is one that has spread across social media after the recent murder of university student Uyinene Mrwetyana and many others such as Leighandre Jegels, Janika Mallo, and Ayakha Jiyane and her three little siblings. Mass protests were held in Johannesburg and Cape Town, demanding that the Government take greater steps to hold perpetrators of sexual violence accountable under the law and raise awareness that gender-based violence is a crime.

Murders and rapes still occur as frequently in the news and throughout social media regardless, and President Ramaphosa has acknowledged that women and children in South Africa are “under siege.” Gender-based violence and femicide has become a state of emergency in South Africa.
“Sometimes adults don’t listen to us.” At times, the girls are not believed when they speak about their experiences and instead say nothing. Their stories are manifested through their poetry and performances – and powerfully so.

Earlier this year, during Human Rights Month in South Africa, the UN Human Rights regional office in Southern Africa supported the girls’ participation at a Human Rights Festival at the icon Constitution Hill in South Africa. They were able to showcase their creative works, and participate in the social forum dialogues and increase their knowledge of human rights.

In October, the regional office visited the Foundation and the girls spoke about their experiences of living in Setswetla, and their perceptions of human rights. Gender-based violence was the common thread in their messages and they acknowledged the power of their voices to stop to human rights violations and act for change. “One day, I will take my parents out of here,” one of the girls said.

Each year on 25 November, women’s rights activists around the world kick off a campaign for 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence. This year’s initiative, under the umbrella of the UNiTE Campaign, calls on people from all walks of life to be part of Generation Equality and take a stand against the pervasive rape culture that surrounds us. 

29 november 2019

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