#METOO two women working towards ending gender abuse
THE UN WOMEN INITIATIVE HOPES TO END ALL FORMS OF GENDER ABUSE, YET THE DOMINANT CULTURE OF VIOLENT PATRIARCHY PERSISTS
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.