Guest Column

OPINION: The fight against gender-based violence needs a new platform

2019-09-20 17:00
This unidentified woman wearing a mobile dress decorated with newspaper articles on gender violence victims, turned heads at the arts and crafts street festival, Streetopia, in Observatory on Saturday.

This unidentified woman wearing a mobile dress decorated with newspaper articles on gender violence victims, turned heads at the arts and crafts street festival, Streetopia, in Observatory on Saturday.

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Unacceptable levels of gender-based violence in South Africa are evidence that current interventions are not working. It's time to recognise arts and culture that work on a social level to help shift attitudes, writes Fergus Turner

South Africans are reeling from a series of horrific attacks on women and children, which culminated in protest marches across the country this September. According to the latest data, a woman is murdered every three hours in South Africa. Deputy Minister of Social Development, Henrietta Ipeleng Bogopane-Zulu, at an event early in September acknowledged that “some of our systems have not worked as we wanted them to work” and pledged to step up actions to fight gender-based violence (GBV).

But studies show that South Africans themselves have worrying attitudes towards gender-based violence. A 2018 study by Statistics South Africa revealed that there was a percentage of women – even though it was small at 2.3%  – who thought it was acceptable for a man to hit a woman. Study authors said, “It could therefore be fair to conclude that it is not possible to eliminate violence against women when there are women who still believe that it is acceptable to be hit by a man.”

How do we change beliefs and attitudes towards women and children, transform the thinking around violence and domestic abuse as well as femicide? A challenging task, to be sure, but not impossible. And there are spaces where such work is easier to do, where the topics for discussion present themselves more naturally, allowing for the necessary dialogues and conversations that create and build awareness – which in turn shapes our thinking and ultimately can change behaviour.

These spaces exist in our arts and cultural spheres, where festivals in particular can be potent agents in the countering of gender-based violence. Not only do stories, music and art bring people together and mobilise them, but they boost social cohesion, stimulate regional economies and allow for divergent voices to be heard.

There are many examples from across the world where festivals have been used to bring people together and spread knowledge on various topics – including GBV. Oxfam, for instance, launched a series of events, including film festivals and poster design competitions in countries like South Africa, Zambia, Morocco, Indonesia, India and Pakistan to spread positive messages on gender equality, promote feminist songs and street theatre shows. 

And while this may seem like a soft approach, there is hard evidence that such cultural interventions can successfully address GBV. In one study in Uganda by Columbia University, researchers conducted a randomised control trial on violence against women and revealed that showing videos to community members, encouraging them to speak out when there is domestic violence, led to a reduction in domestic violence itself. It appeared that the videos raised awareness about domestic violence being wrong and demonstrated that there was no shame in speaking out about it, which helped to reduce the incidences of violence.

In South Africa, the Ulutsha Street Festival 2018, which has been held in Port Elizabeth for the past four years, actively seeks to involve community members and especially young people from disadvantaged areas where there is a lot of domestic violence, in a range of activities from drama, music and poetry to games and street soccer tournaments. The 2018 event raised awareness of GBV with appearances by the Masifunde LGBTI Group as well as the Masifunde Positive Masculinity Group performing a GBV flash mob. The SAPS Social Crime Prevention Officer also spoke about the importance of reporting cases of domestic violence, and at the end of the day, poems about violence were shared publicly.

Such public events can enhance community cohesion, creating a platform from which advocacy and activism can be launched. Positive messages to raise awareness, to educate and inform, are absorbed more easily in an atmosphere that has been uplifted with fun and games. Festivals create opportunities for better understanding across cultural boundaries as well as for greater resilience within marginalised communities. They provide a playful, non-political arena for cultural understanding, reconciliation, and communication.

Additionally, festival organisers are able to bring people together, from city officials and strategic partners to activists, into a festival arena, getting key role players to commit in whatever way they can, to work together towards a common aim. Festivals are non-threatening by nature, they are celebratory spaces where people come to relax and share good times, and to many institutional players festivals can be a safe space to become involved with a certain theme or topic that may otherwise pose problems for them in another official setting.

This then allows an interface platform for issues and themes to be explored via poetry or expressive dance or any other art form. Performance, carnival, storytelling, etc. are much more effective and safe mediums for disrupting and re-imagining antisocial memes that are systemic rather than symptomatic. In the case of GBV, it can help to curate new narratives and aid in performing them with a variety of mediums. 

And playing with ideas and the emotion around especially sensitive and potentially explosive topics like GBV in such a manner, has a higher likelihood of reaching audiences who may not have been open to such messages before.

How we perceive boys and girls, is socially – not biologically driven – says Kristin Mmari, associate professor at John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. So if we want to change perceptions about men and women, we need to do this at a social level. Using schools and workplaces to change perceptions and ideas about gender is vital, but how much more effectively could we get positive gender messages across at festivals, where people – and especially young people – are relaxed, accessible and open to what is happening around them? It sets the stage for real social justice and true societal change, with an audience ready and willing to engage with the message.

- Fergus Turner manages the Bertha Centre’s Scholarship Community and is an alumnus of the UCT Graduate School of Business’s MPhil specialising in Inclusive Innovation. He also coordinates the Muizenberg Festival and is Director of The Hive, a creative hub space and cultural incubator.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24. 




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