Exposing Sexual Disparities in Farming Communities
Rural Education, Awareness and Community Health (REACH) was established to respond to the heightening levels of sexual harassment evident in South Africa’s rural farming communities.
In the context of sexual harassment, the organisation raises awareness of the prevalence of sexual and domestic violence, alcohol and drug abuse and HIV/AIDS in Western Cape’s rural farming communities.
REACH was co-founded by Joanie Fredericks, Executive Director, and Claudia Lopes, Training and Counselling Director, in response to a study on sexual harassment conducted by Fredericks in 2003. The study, 'Sexual Harassment at work on farms in the Overberg/Western Cape Region', exposed the high prevalence of sexual harassment, sexual and domestic violence, alcohol and drug abuse and HIV/AIDS in this region.
Despite the hype and promises made by government and civil society following the launch of the study, Fredericks notes that subsequently there was a very distinct lack of programmes and absence of support services that addressed and assisted rural farming communities in their plight against these social problems.
In response to the great need that this lack of programmes and services inspired, Fredericks and Lopes established REACH in February 2005. Fredericks explains that in the months leading up to the launch of the organisation, she came to the realisation that, “If I wanted to see any changes in the rural areas, I was the person who was going to have to do something about it.”
True to her Roots
As the youngest daughter of a farm worker in Grabouw in the Western Cape, Fredericks grew up to be one of the first women forklift drivers in the area. In an attempt to discourage her, local male farmers who felt women should not do ‘men’s work’ often sexually and verbally harassed her.
Despite numerous attempts to gain support from her female counterparts, Fredericks was continuously faced with women who were indifferent to her situation. After three years as a forklift driver facing constant sexual harassment with no respite, Fredericks decided to resign, but resolved that she would come back to change people’s perspectives of sexual harassment.
Since then, Fredericks has worked for the Sexual Harassment Education Project (SHEP), assisting the organisation to establish an office in rural Western Cape. While working for SHEP, Fredericks produced the research study which informed the establishment of REACH.
In the period between 2003 and 2005, she also worked for the Centre for Rural Legal Studies, as well as the Public Health Department and Industrial Health Research Group at the University of Cape Town as a researcher and research assistant.
Fredericks’s first hand experience with sexual harassment combined with her strong background in research has greatly influenced her philosophy for REACH. Fredericks states that, “I have complete passion for farm workers," adding that, "I have no interest in profiting from the work that I do.”
In light of her philosophy, Fredericks appraises South Africa’s key development challenges within the context of financial constraints facing the development sector. She notes that, “The non-profit sector has become too much like business because of the need for sustainability.” Fredericks bemoans that the lack of financial resources within this sector has resulted in the development sector being more profit driven rather than passion driven.
Empowering Rural Farming Communities
Amongst other things, the organisation’s main objectives are to provide training and raise awareness about sexual harassment and sexual violence on farms, establish counselling and legal support services on farms, and conduct research into factors contributing to sexual harassment and sexual violence.
Since its inception, REACH has gradually made headway towards realising its main objectives in the farming communities of the Western Cape.
To address social problems faced by farm workers in rural communities, REACH provides rights-based, skills-based and awareness raising workshops focused on sexual harassment, sexual and domestic violence, alcohol and drug abuse and HIV/AIDS.
The organisation also embarks on campaigns and advocacy activities to ensure adequate policy and legislative framework to address these problems. In line with this, REACH launched a South African Rural Women’s Day campaign on 12 August 2006. This annual campaign aims to explore social issues faced by rural women and also ways in which communities can invest in the empowerment of rural women.
In a document explaining the merits of the campaign, REACH says that, “We aim to ensure that rural women are finally honoured in a society where celebrations of Women’s Day often neglect these women.”
South African Rural Women’s Day
This year’s campaign was attended by 576 women and children from the Western Cape. Fredericks delightedly notes that the event was, “Absolutely fantastic and mind-blowing.” She highlights this campaign as a turning point for rural women and their issues within farming communities in the Western Cape. She explains that this event is, "A platform for rural women to campaign.”
Fredericks maintains that prior to the establishment of this event, there were very few platforms that allowed rural women the opportunity to air and share their views constructively. In light of this, she explains that the idea for the campaign was borne out of the question, “What can a person do to get rural women to be taken seriously?”
During the event, REACH launched a research report titled, ‘Sexual Harassment on Farms: Is it really a problem’, which focused on the prevalence of violence against women and children on farms.
Pushing Forward Irregardless of Challenges
Although REACH only has a modest annual budget of R860 000, Fredericks maintains that there is still scope for growth for the organisation. She does not foresee REACH closing down due to inadequate funding, instead she highlights that in its first year REACH did not have any official funding but the organisation persevered. She maintains that, "We strive on challenges."
Fredericks notes that the organisation has stayed afloat because, “We strongly believe that what we are doing is the right thing.”
Despite current financial constraints, Fredericks is optimistic that in the near future the organisation will broaden out into all the rural areas of the Western Cape, with the ultimate goal of branching out nationally and even internationally.
- Badumile Duma, Editor, SANGONeT.