#METOO two women work­ing to­wards end­ing gen­der abuse


Elle (South Africa) - - CONTENTS -

For 16 days each year, there’s a global call to arms that aims to lead the charge against the deepseated on­slaught against women and girls. In spite of the ef­forts of the UN Women ini­tia­tive, which runs an­nu­ally from the In­ter­na­tional Day for the Elim­i­na­tion of Vi­o­lence Against Women to Hu­man Rights Day, for many women there’s been a pro­found stag­nancy in their daily, vi­o­lent re­al­i­ties. Debi Steven is one of the women mak­ing a weighty con­tri­bu­tion to end­ing sex­ual vi­o­lence across mul­ti­ple bor­ders. Tarana Burke is an­other, hav­ing founded the ‘Me Too’ move­ment in 2006, which this year be­came an online phe­nom­e­non. In 2018, the #MeToo move­ment has glob­ally gal­vanised a com­mu­nity of peo­ple to a broader aware­ness of the na­ture of sex­ual vi­o­lence in all forms. It in­spired ac­tivism, as many peo­ple told their sto­ries online: find­ing a space for sup­port and com­mu­nity, as we col­lec­tively held each other. We’ve heard many nar­ra­tives, told in var­ied tones, from strong state­ments to cau­tious whis­pers. All of these sto­ries are equally valid, in each of their reg­is­ters. Debi tells her story mat­ter-of-factly, hav­ing sur­vived two ac­counts of rape by the time she was 11. The wounds of this would drive her to be­come a mem­ber of the all-stars South African Karate Team and a crack ad­dict. It’s an ex­pe­ri­ence in ex­tremes. There’s no hes­i­ta­tion as she de­scribes how the two men who at­tacked her were from her com­mu­nity in Port El­iz­a­beth, liv­ing in a ‘not great area with a lot of chal­lenges’. She de­scribes mak­ing a de­ci­sion to keep quiet be­cause her mother and al­co­holic fa­ther, who were sep­a­rated, had just got­ten back to­gether again and, ‘in my little mind I thought that if I told them this, they’d get di­vorced’. As #MeToo re­vealed, many can re­late. ‘As a sur­vivor, you don’t be­lieve in your­self, you don’t value your­self, you don’t love your­self,’ she tells me ca­su­ally over tea at Kauai. Af­ter hit­ting rock bot­tom Debi’s friend of­fered her a place to stay in London, as she sought to get away from the in­flu­ences that made ac­cess to drugs all too easy. The minute she got on the plane, she stopped us­ing and although she’d planned to come back to South Africa af­ter a few months, 20 years later she heads up Ac­tion Breaks Si­lence (ABS) along with the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s CEO, Sarah Rob­bie. The two work in a small of­fice in south London that makes up the ma­jor­ity of the op­er­a­tions be­hind the char­ity she started in 2013. ABS is a se­ries of free pro­grammes that chal­lenge so­ci­etal gen­der roles in the hope of break­ing the cor­ro­sive pat­terns of gen­der-based vi­o­lence. What started as a women-cen­tric self-defence work­shop has grown into an ini­tia­tive that’s ed­u­cated over 50 000 peo­ple against gen­der­based vi­o­lence across the UK, South Africa, In­dia, and the Dutch An­tilles. As of Au­gust, the ‘para­chute in­ter­ven­tion’ once-off and four-hour class has evolved into a fully-fledged two-year pro­gramme where Debi and other train­ers in­ter­act with school­go­ing chil­dren to break down their pre­con­ceived ideas of gen­der, of their place in the world and of vi­o­lent acts, all while en­cour­ag­ing self-love. ‘In times of ex­treme chal­lenges, it’s re­ally im­por­tant for us to know, ir­re­spec­tive of all the hor­ri­ble things these peo­ple are do­ing to me, that I love me. I’m go­ing to sur­vive and be OK.’ Lis­ten­ing to Debi talk, one would be re­miss if the word ‘brave’ didn’t come to mind at least twice, but you’d be wrong if you thought her fear­less. In fact, har­ness­ing fear is one of the cor­ner­stones of the fe­male em­pow­er­ment pro­grammes of­fered by ABS. An im­por­tant part of her work is ex­plain­ing that fear, adren­a­line and in­tu­ition are a nat­u­ral defence sys­tem. ‘In­stead of al­low­ing fear to dis­em­power us we should re-frame it and ac­knowl­edge that fear trig­gers our

nat­u­ral fight-or-flight in­stincts, which are part of sur­vival,’ she says. ABS asks the women in their class if they’ve ever screamed like a ban­shee or smashed into punch­ing bags. Have they kneed any­thing or grabbed some­thing and ripped into it? The an­swer is al­ways ‘no’. ‘Be­cause ev­ery­thing to do with be­ing a woman and fem­i­nine in a pa­tri­ar­chal world says you shouldn’t do that. If you do, then you’re go­ing to be judged,’ says Debi. Women are taught to be nice. But we aren’t taught that we’re also al­lowed to fight back if our bound­aries are trans­gressed. Although the girls are only taught five or six phys­i­cal el­e­ments within the pro­gramme, Debi says, ‘it’s like a re­lease when they re­alise that they’re al­lowed to be them­selves’. It’s a rev­e­la­tion that they have the abil­ity to be that phys­i­cal: to fight back. ‘We’re giv­ing them the space to give them­selves per­mis­sion to be hu­man. We say: “Think about it and then make a de­ci­sion.” It’s very much about them mak­ing that de­ci­sion,’ ex­plains Debi. The ex­pe­ri­ence of a stu­dent who once at­tended her classes shows the ef­fects of such per­mis­sion. She was run­ning through a grassy area when a man on a bike dragged her into the bushes, smash­ing her jaw and in­jur­ing her ribs. Re­al­is­ing she was go­ing to be raped, she in­stinc­tively re­mem­bered what Debi had taught her and went ‘bal­lis­tic’. When the police in­ter­viewed her af­ter ar­rest­ing the preda­tor, they asked her if she re­alised what she’d done to his face. She had shoved her fingers up his nose and ripped 90% of it off his face. ‘If you look at her jour­ney, it was one where she ac­cepted that she had a right to fight back; that there were no rules and that she was al­lowed to set her own ones,’ says Debi. The boys’ pro­gramme teaches a dif­fer­ent set of rules. It’s a soft skills pro­gramme that has no phys­i­cal at­tributes, be­cause that’s the ag­gres­sive so­lu­tion they were taught as a stan­dard their whole lives. ‘For boys, we work on hav­ing their at­ti­tudes change to­wards women and girls so that their be­hav­iour in so­ci­ety starts chang­ing. They start be­com­ing ac­tive by­standers and be­ing part of stop­ping this ridicu­lous be­hav­iour that men think is OK. They start un­der­stand­ing and feel­ing deep em­pa­thy for all in­jus­tices – and one of those is that women are pushed down on all lev­els,’ says Debi. The pre­vi­ous once-off work­shops were driven by her per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences as a child. But af­ter she was of­fered the op­por­tu­nity to do a Mas­ter’s de­gree in women and child abuse in London, led by Prof Liz Kelly, it be­came clear that in seek­ing to change some­thing as in­grained as mas­culin­ity and vi­o­lence against women, they needed more than ABS’s orig­i­nal four-hour train­ing ses­sion. The new 12-hour pro­gramme has started in six schools in Soweto and seven schools in Lo­tus Gar­den and At­teridgeville, here in South Africa. With the full sup­port and in­clu­sion of the schools’ teach­ers and the chil­dren’s par­ents and guardians, ev­ery sin­gle 11-year-old child in Grade 5 re­ceives six one-hour ses­sions, with a fol­low-up course a year later, with the the same train­ers. In our con­text, such in­ter­ven­tions are im­por­tant. Ac­cord­ing to the Sta­tis­tics SA re­port, Crime Against Women in South Africa, re­leased in May, a crude es­ti­mate shows that 38 women out of ev­ery 100 000 were raped dur­ing the course of 2016/17. Eighty per­cent of the sex­ual as­sault crimes re­ported in the 2016/17 SA Police Ser­vice sta­tis­tics were rape, of which 68,5% of the vic­tims were fe­male. Ad­di­tion­ally, the mur­der sta­tis­tics show that ac­cord­ing to the World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion, the South African femi­cide rate in 2016 was 12,1 per 100 000 – five times higher than the global av­er­age of 2,6. It’s the first time in 15 years that the rate has risen, hav­ing pre­vi­ously fallen steadily from 21,4 in 2000 to 9,6 in 2015. Along with teach­ing the stu­dents about self-love, and the phys­i­cal and soft skills, Debi’s classes be­come spa­ces for im­por­tant dis­cus­sions about con­sent and set­ting and re­spect­ing bound­aries. All of these el­e­ments are crit­i­cal to con­ver­sa­tions sparked by #MeToo and the re­spect we need to ob­serve for each other’s bod­ies, across all gen­ders. Dur­ing classes, Debi talks to chil­dren about healthy re­la­tion­ships, sex­ual en­coun­ters and deal­ing with the emo­tional ef­fects of in­ti­mate con­nec­tions. ‘In­ter­na­tion­ally, no­body wants to talk about sex with chil­dren, so why are we so sur­prised that they’re turn­ing to the In­ter­net?’ she asks. It’s the start of a much larger chap­ter in the story of ABS, and the hope that this pro­gramme will help cre­ate a world where women and girls can live their lives free from fear of vi­o­lence. It will un­doubt­edly be a long jour­ney, but it’s a start. Each in­ter­ven­tion helps to cre­ate a fu­ture where there isn’t a rape ev­ery 26 sec­onds; where, on av­er­age, one in three women glob­ally aren’t beaten, co­erced into sex or abused by an in­ti­mate part­ner; and where we wouldn’t have to be la­belled as ‘brave’ if we told our story. Debi wants ev­ery­one to un­der­stand that we can all ‘be role mod­els and he­roes in your com­mu­nity. All that vi­o­lence that you’ve seen and ex­pe­ri­enced? You can ac­tu­ally be a part of stop­ping it for the fu­ture.’ We can change this re­al­ity, to­gether.

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