Telling our gender stories

Talking: Young women from across the Province came together to discuss various social ills and challenges they face. Picture: Danie van der Lith

In this country there is no shortage of organisations and individuals working toward upending gender based violence and furthering gender justice. Yet we remain among the countries with the highest rates of gender based violence with statistics that are likened to that of countries in active war. So why is it then that we are unable to curb the scourge of violence along gender lines?  

Many have attempted to understand why, despite the proliferation of gender based organisations and committed individuals, we still struggle with this. Two of the most common explanations offered is that organisations continue to work in silos with limited to no collaboration. The second reason is that conversations about gender and gender based violence is often relegated to the theoretical and abstract space where statistics replace names and where we create such distance between us and both perpetrator and victim that we forget that they are products of the very communities we come from. I’d like to propose one other explanation: that we don’t see gender as fundamentally relational and that there are too few opportunities and spaces to tell and hear gender stories.

At a recent Gender Based Violence and Human Rights Imbizo hosted by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, Activate! Change Drivers and Africa Unite, the conversation shifted when one of the speakers said, “You can call me a sex-worker, not a prostitute”. The weight of her words hung heavy in the room. After having spent the day interrogating what some of the root causes of GBV in South Africa are and reflecting on what a gender just society could look like, the words of this women flipped many conversations on their heads. But it was about more than just her words. It was the effect of seeing the courage with which she spoke them. In an instant, conversations were hauled down from the theoretical space and landed firmly within real time. There stood in front of us a person, with dreams, feelings and opinions who also happens to be a sex-worker. Her physical presence and telling of her own story, forced us all to reflect on our personal biases, the language we use and the ideas we have about others.

The effect of hearing the stories of others, narrated by the very persons who lived through these experiences can be powerful and transformative. Story-telling is deeply embedded in South Africa’s history. We find our stories inscribed in rocks, dancing in traditional songs, embalmed in poetry and books. The stories of who we are and where we come from are passed along inter-generationally, shifting and changing as they move along from tongue to ear to hand. These stories not only shape how we see ourselves but also informs how we engage with the world around us.

In a country where levels of GBV have reached epidemic proportions and where legacies of apartheid spatial planning has left us fractured and disconnected, it is important that all persons are allowed to tell their gender story and experiences in unmediated ways and that these stories are shared. The acts of talking and story-telling are powerful means through which to raise awareness around how deeply gendered our experiences of the world, our actions and the actions of others toward us are, and how this informs the consequent power imbalances and deep inequalities. Knowing someone else’s story can lead to greater feelings of empathy which in turn can inform positive social action.

We have a part to play in creating safer spaces for the sharing of stories that challenge social norms and standards that reinforce harmful practices. When diverse groups of people come together in conversation around common challenges and, in the search for common ground, they can jointly explore transformative ideas. Although it is nearly impossible to ensure that any space is ever really safe, those who are invited to engage should be prepared to be brave. At this very basic level, we can through our actions, create inclusive spaces, where others feel hear, recognised and valued. We can learn to engage and speak in ways that open up and don’t alienate.

Eleanor Du Plooy is the Senior Project Leader for the Ashley Kriel Youth Development Desk and the Gender, Justice and Reconciliation Project at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation