Righting the wrongs in rural South Africa

The Cape Times first published this article on 15 May 2013. Read the text below, or click here to read a PDF.

At a Venda primary school I sat with nine adults involved, in different capacities, with a scheme combating sexual, gender-based and domestic violence. As our knees pointed skywards, given the diminutive size of the children's furniture on which we perched, I asked a man what he'd learned from the Thohoyandou Victim Empowerment Programme (TVEP). His response was that he used to force his partner to have sex with him against her wishes; now he didn't.  The man had needed to be "work shopped" by TVEP to understand his behaviour had been wrong. There was no shame expressed in his body language or tone. I sensed his main feeling was pride in his change not shame at his past. The rest of the attendees looked on impassively, including the women. I was the only person in the classroom having his first conversation with a rapist and no one else was shocked. TVEP's scheme the Zero Tolerance Village Alliance (ZTVA) has been expressly designed for the realities of the social and cultural norms of this man's rural Venda community. 

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For a village to join the ZTVA, stringent criteria must be met. The buy-in of community figures is the first step and then a local community Stakeholder Committee is established. Technical Assistants train and assist local Community Activists who in turn lead community workshops on the themes of sexual assault, domestic violence, child abuse and HIV/AIDS. Technical Assistant Itani Netshithuthuni explained 

"we have six Community Activists in each village, three male, three female and we educate the community in different age groups".

The workshops include exercises such as demonstrating how to use female condoms, role plays relating to children's rights and education on HIV/AIDS.  Itani smiled as he told me that after the workshops he knew of "grandmothers who’ve taught family members how to use female condoms". One participant told me that prior to the workshops she'd physically abuse her children but that she "no longer withholds food as a means of punishment". Others explained that much of the HIV/AIDS stigma had been removed and that testing was far more common.

Discussion of our human rights is commonplace but possession of rights is insufficient if, in reality, those rights are not or cannot be exercised. In the marginalised villages of Venda the non-reporting of sexual and gender-based violence is the norm. TVEP's approach seeks to bridge the gap between awareness of an entitlement to rights and enabling the exercise of those rights. For instance, TVEP has established 14 help desks in rural clinics providing the community with advisors to turn to in the event of any form of abuse. Help desk workers do not merely advise, they also hold other service providers (such as the police) to account and remain involved with victim support.

As part of any ZTVA scheme a short term community run safe house for victims of domestic violence is opened, providing victims with an escape route from an abuser. Consistently supplied female condom distribution sites are required. Police stations are required to comply with a victim empowerment policy. Clinics are obliged to offer voluntary counselling and testing and display the Victim's Charter. There must be a functioning support group for both those living with HIV/AIDS as well as orphans and vulnerable children. Therefore ZTVA empowerment is with knowledge of rights and an ability to exercise them.

After completion of the workshops and the establishment of all other components for membership of the ZTVA a village celebration is held. At the celebration community members take a public oath that they will not tolerate sexual and gender based violence, child abuse or HIV-based stigma. In one village in which TVEP operates, Lunungwi, the pledge ceremony included prayers, a drama presentation, dance and other locally relevant features. The King of Venda led the community in taking the pledge of zero tolerance. TVEP activist and my Tshivenda translator for the day, Mudzwari Sarinah, explained that the public pledge taken by the participants was significant. The participants are honored and that leads to further interest from and discussion amongst male community members who had not taken part in the scheme itself.  

If South Africa is to successfully confront the challenges it faces relating to sexual, gender-based and domestic violence a full armory of culturally relevant techniques must be used. The approach in Venda will not work in other rural communities without adaption and would probably not be a relevant approach in cities at all. TVEP's approach ensures that ZTVA relates to the local customs and norms. For instance, the traditional healer in Lunungwi is involved with the ZTVA and has been educated to send HIV positive patients to the clinic, to use blades only once and to wear gloves when undertaking certain traditional practices. In another ZTVA village, Tshiombo, the safe house is situated on the chief's own property which sends a strong message in a patriarchal society. 

The statistics show that ZTVA has had substantial and meaningful impacts in Venda. Although the specific ZTVA model would not be the right approach nationally, it is a model example for the creation of culturally and geographically tailored interventions. More of these tailored interventions are needed. Education is also relevant, over half those surveyed by TVEP in Tshiombo and Lunungwi reported a failure to complete grade 10.

I asked Mudzwari Sarinah what she considered to be the largest challenge facing the scheme. Her immediate answer was "the men". Whilst all age groups would participate, it remained far more usual for women to participate.  Research shows that it’s not an uncommon belief in Venda (for men or women) to think that umalo, which is similar to a dowry, entitles a man to have sex with his wife whenever he wants. Some men in Venda have reported to TVEP that they believe they will not be respected if they do not beat their wife. TVEP has ensured that its approach is adapted to suit the cultural norms of the area in which they operate, its successes would surely not have been possible had it not done so but the patriarchal nature of the society is clearly a challenge to be confronted. 

Whilst it is important to respect other cultures, it remains a taboo in South Africa to look deeply into cultural beliefs and question their impacts. Recently the taboo of gender violence has been lifted but that is not the only relevant taboo which remains.

Venda is fortunate that a committed group of people at TVEP have designed an intervention model which is having real impacts on their lives but of course TVEP alone cannot be expected to solve the region's issues. Many of the region's problems relate to a lack of education. Whilst TVEP has coordinated the local communities and organisations relevant to sexual, gender-based and domestic violence (such as the clinics and the police) they cannot heal the region's poverty and schooling problems. A complete solution for Venda requires not only the continued good work of TVEP but also investment in the area's education and health care facilities and the creation of jobs to enable poverty reduction. It would also help if we were able to speak more freely about the impact of our different cultural beliefs.