Tackling gender-based violence through citizen action in Cape Town’s townships

Joanna Wheeler and Thea Shahrokh

Joanna WheelerGender-based violence is both routine and extreme across South Africa. In Cape Town, cases such as the rape and murder of nine-year-old Elihle Hlanjwa  continue to highlight the seriousness of this issue in the lives of women, men and children living in the city’s townships.

Sustained activist pressure on legislative and judicial bodies shows the challenges involved in responding to the issue, with opportunities for mitigation, redress and healing limited by an ineffectual justice system. The current inquiry into policing in Khayelitsha township has been driven by residents’ deep-rooted mistrust in law enforcement institutions, which is in part, a response to the failures of the police in addressing the issue. The violence that permeates township communities is also connected to economic insecurity and marginality of the spaces where people live. This has been acknowledged to a certainThea Shahrokh extent in municipal policy, such as the city-led Violence Prevention and Urban Upgrading scheme. However, the significance of the how violence is used to enforce discriminatory social norms such as those surrounding gender, age, race, religion and ethnicity have received less attention.

A recent pilot evaluation by the Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation, the University of Western Cape and the Institute of Development Studies was undertaken to learn from citizen activists taking action against gender-based violence in Khayelitsha township. The lived experience of these activists provides an example of how community responses to violence are contributing to a sense of democratic citizenship and the transformation of inequitable relations of power, attitudes and behaviours at the local level.

Citizen-led innovations in addressing urban violence demand greater attention in policy and programming. This requires seeing those living in contexts of violence as potential active citizens, who are able to claim their rights to security and demand greater accountability, as well as act directly to mitigate violence. In this evaluation an in-depth understanding of the life choices and life chances of community activists meant that we were able to understand more about what enables people to take action against violence, within their homes, communities and cities, and importantly what sustains this activism.

Activists found value in opportunities to reflect on their own lives and relationships before trying to influence others, seeing their own life journeys and personal transformations as important catalysts of change. Activist networks were essential for engaging people across all levels of society, helping to reshape and rethink societal norms around violence. Police responsiveness and accountability on issues of gender-based violence within intimate, community and institutional spaces were seen as crucial for rebuilding trusting relationships with citizens and in catalysing wider citizen action.

‘If there was a wife calling the police saying that there is a husband beating me up then they will take their own time to come because they know the husband. Sometimes they say ‘we don’t interfere with marriage, so you just need to go to the centres, or to those organisations that deal with marriages or abusive relationships’. But now we are working with them, because we introduced them and we are wanting them to become a part of the community committee.’ (Woman, Community Activist, Khayelitsha).

Activism against violence does not exist in a vacuum. Citizen action against violence that is informed by the local context, its constraints and its possibilities will be more sustainable and will have greater impact when combined with interventions that address wider systemic issues that drive poverty and inequality. Furthermore, it is important that policies addressing violence prevention and mitigation link between local, provincial and national levels. Learning needs to take place between each level to ensure that policies are responsive to, and enabling for the grass roots activists. The National Strategic Plan to End Gender Based Violence which is currently in development provides a platform for this kind of transformative policymaking. In order to realise this vision it will be critical that the policymaking process learns from community action, and enables citizens of South Africa to have a stake in the response.

Related research on citizen action and community-led innovations against gender-based violence in South Africa

The SLF Project ‘SafeShebeens’, which seeks to reduce the risks of violence to women in public drinking venues, was recently short-listed for the OpenIDEO Amplify Challenge.

Case study research with SLF and Sonke Gender Justice has been initiated to explore how collective action contributes to addressing the discriminatory social norms that perpetuate sexual and gender-based violence, and the role of men and boys in enabling transformative change.

Thea Shahrokh is a Research Officer at the Participation, Power and Social Change team at IDS. Joanna Wheeler is a Senior Research Associate at the Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation, previously she was a Research Fellow at IDS.

Read more blogs by Thea Shahrokh and Joanna Wheeler

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