What do you think of when you see a butterfly? Beautiful colours! Freedom after the struggle to break out of a cocoon! The sky is the limit! Reaching up; reaching out!
These were just a few of the answers given by survivors of gender violence who over the last five years have come out to tell their stories. Gathered together at a workshop convened by Gender Links (GL) ahead of the Sixteen Days of Activism on Gender Violence from 25 November (International Day of No Violence Against Women) to 10 December (Human Rights Day), the women took some time to pause to recall what speaking out has meant to them.
The butterfly is the symbol of the “I” Stories brand that these women have created, as well as a profound metaphor for their lives. As facilitator Mmatshilo Motsei (a long-time gender activist assisting survivors to recover and regain their health and well-being), sketched out the life cycle of a butterfly, lights went on in the eyes of the 25 women who had come together to take stock of their healing journey.
“The caterpillar is a victim whose hopelessness is compounded when it closes up in a cocoon,” Motsei said. “The butterfly that emerges is a survivor with new found freedom and possibilities. That does not mean your flight will always be a smooth one. Sometimes the most profound lessons are learned from taking the wrong turn. We think of healing as a destination but it is a journey, with several land marks along the way. Talking is the beginning of that journey.”
When the “healing through writing project” in first started in 2004, it was fraught with risks. What if women who came out to tell their stories, especially through the media, suffered even more violence at the hands of abusive partners? What would happen after the near celebrity status accorded by the Sixteen Days came to an end? How would we respond to expectations raised for jobs and security?
Each year as Sixteen Days approaches, in collaboration with support and counseling organisations, GL puts out a call to anyone wishing to share their story. Gathering together in a workshop setting, survivors first tell each other their stories. They then go off and write them with the support of a team of editors, before the stories are finally sent to the mainstream media.
The stories are widely disseminated and published by newspapers and online outlets. Many stories also generate requests for interviews by the electronic media and survivors are often asked to speak at public events, lead marches and get involved in gender violence campaigns.
The stories of over 55 survivors that GL has worked with in South Africa, chronicled in four “butterfly” books that also include stories from other Southern African countries, cover every race and age group. They range from a woman who had her jail sentence lifted after murdering a sadistic partner following years of physical and emotional torture, to another forced to watch her husband having sex with his girlfriend in the same bed.
This year, even as equally gruesome “I” Stories started to pour in ahead of the Sixteen Days, we decided to follow up on past participants to get some idea of what effect speaking out has had on their lives. Some could not be traced. Others preferred not to continue to be associated with gender violence related work.
However, the half who responded to the alumni call and spent a weekend writing follow up “I” stories shared uplifting stories of what breaking out of the cocoon has meant for them. At least three have become counselors at the shelters where they once took refuge. Rehanna, a Muslim woman living with HIV and a participant in the very first “I” story workshop, is now a well-known advocate of disclosing one’s HIV status.
Rose Thamae’s three-generation story of enlisting her daughter and granddaughter to the cause after a gang rape left her with HIV has inspired hundreds here and abroad. She leads Lets Grow, a vibrant community-based HIV and AIDS care network in Orange Farm with branches in Lesotho.
Thamae has spoken on global stages from India to the United Nations in New York. Her young granddaughter Kgomotso says, “Even though I am sometimes stigmatised because of my grandmother’s experiences, I would much rather have them out in the open than the subject of rumours and gossip. Mothers should be honest with their daughters. The truth will set you free.”
Marco Ndlovu, a lesbian who has suffered untold pain at the hands of her family and a community determined to “fix her” has written Zulu poems and become a gay rights activist, marching recently to the Uganda embassy to demand the repealing of a bill to stamp out homosexuality in the East African nation.
Participants at the weekend workshop pointed out that putting painful experiences to paper helps you to think through, understand, and come to terms with what has happened. Noting that “a story told is a burden shared” one participant said that reading other stories helped her realise that things could have been worse. Two participants said that documenting their experiences helped their perpetrators to see the light. In one case, in-laws, previously unaware of their son’s conduct, came to apologise.
When Sweetness Gwebu first participated in the “I” Story project in 2007 after 37 years of living in an abusive relationship, she did not want her name used. The following year, her image and name graced the foreword to the 2008 “I” Stories book. Now she is writing a book that probes deeper into the causes of gender violence. “What I have found not even a psychiatrist would know,” she said.
Grace Maleka who became disabled because of a car accident, recounts how after her story of abuse aired on ETV, she received several calls from community members saying she had lied. Written story in hand, she stood her ground and has gone on to give dozens of media interviews, especially with local community radio stations, and become a leading for disabled women, especially on issues of gender violence.
The experience of participating in cyber dialogues, and having her story posted on Women 24 where it received many comments has opened her eyes to the potential power of information technology in the campaign for women’s rights.
Maleka compares herself to a driver who looks in the right mirror, the left mirror, and the rear view mirror before overtaking a car on the highway. “When you have done all that, there is only one way to go and that is forward,” she said. “For me, there is no turning back.”
- Colleen Lowe Morna is Executive Director of Gender Links. This article is part of the GL Opinion and Commentary Service that offers fresh views on every day news. More information on the Sixteen Days of Activism campaign can be found on www.genderlinks.org.za. This article is also published on the Citizen Journalism in Africa (CJA) Portal.