We Are Not Next - Empowering Women To Fight Back
© Photography by Nicolas Burri
"Share Your Story" submitted by Michelle Becht, 22 years old student from Bern and Nicolas Burri, 24 years old photographer from Zurich, Switzerland
1 in 3 women globally experience violence or rape during their lives. In South Africa, every 4 hours a woman is murdered and every hour, 4 women are raped. Since the Corona pandemic has forced countries to implement lockdowns, domestic violence and gender-based violence cases have risen around 30 percent globally - and these are only the reported ones.
The war on women’s and girls’ bodies is a pandemic itself - and there has never been a more crucial time to rise: We will not get used to this. We are not next. We will Fight Back.
“Don’t take any pictures out of the windows when driving”, Nicole warns us before we get in the car. We lock the doors, close the windows. It’s as if we’re entering a different world, behind the curtain of the majestic mountains surrounding Cape Town. Here lie the Cape Flats, where most of Cape Town’s Townships lie. During Apartheid blacks and colored people were expelled into this area, onto land that was never inhabited before and infrastructure was close to inexistent, onto soil that brought meager harvest. Today, Cape Town’s Townships remain the home of a quarter of South Africa’s population. The landscape changes quickly: the further away from the mountains we drive, the more litter lies on the streets, housing becomes poorer and life seems different. It’s the life of mostly black and colored people. It’s a life where gangs roam the streets and violence is part of day-to-day reality.
The room is full, chats and giggles fill the air of a school hall in Lavender Hill, one of the Township in the Cape Flats. Women and girls from different organizations based in the area are gathered here today to practice self-defense, to practice how to defend their bodies and lives against violent abusers.
The looks in the women’s faces are fierce, while they listen to strong words: “We are not next. Every woman in South Africa needs to be able to protect herself. Her body and her children's bodies. Because no one is going to do it for us. We, the women and the good men that are working along our sides, will do what needs to be done so we can protect ourselves.” Lucinda Evans, the South African Coordinator of the One Billion Rising - Movement rises her fist to the sky, all women join in, and in a choir, they shout, determination and courage lying in their voices: “WE ARE NOT NEXT.”
Nicole is the founder of Fight Back. The Non-Profit Organization provides self-defense classes to women and girls in violent communities. We meet her at her home before we drive to Lavender Hill, where she and her team will be hosting the self-defense workshop. She greets us warmly and talks with confidence and clarity: “You can break an ankle or an elbow and get it fixed. Rape either ends the life of a woman or leaves scars that never heal. I’m not saying a rape victim is a lost person, but they should never even come to the point of having to go through this.” Nicole says further that there is no time to wait for the government to take measures and for the police forces to be better resourced. “We have to do something right now that is going to empower women to change the outcome of that situation - and with the self-defense we teach we can help women change the outcome of a violent situation. We can ensure that they can stop it from turning into rape or murder or aggravated assault - and from these women becoming just another statistic.”
In September, a case of femicide shook South Africa: UCT student Uyinene was raped and killed in a post-office, just around the corner of her home. It shook so much that on the 4th of September 2019, a crowd of ten thousand women and men protested in Cape Town alone. This murder was the tip of the ice-berg. Colorful signs were held up high to the blue sky screaming “Enough is enough”. I asked Nicole, who helped organize the protest, what she feels has changed since the protests: “The solidarity has definitely increased. And it’s wonderful to see women come together on this issue. And also, men have realized the role they play in it. I think one of the greatest things that came out of the gatherings in front of parliament was, that men started calling each other out - they realized that they as men have a responsibility to call other men out for abusive language and actions. I think there has been a big shift in focus on that regard… And when it comes to women: I have never seen a movement the way it has happened now. It created an incredible space for people to come together.”
This solidarity and respect for each other as women was overwhelming when we stepped into the School Hall in Lavender Hill. Women of all sizes and backgrounds came together and felt empowered when they saw that they had the power to change to outcome of a violent situation. There was rage in their voices when they talked about the war against their bodies. There was more bravery and hope than rage. Hope that together women would be stronger. Hope that things can change and that - more than anything - they now had a chance for change to implement.
To experience the importance of NGO’s like Fight Back, Lucinda’s finishing speech says it all:
“It took me 4 months to find Fight Back.
Firstly, because we can’t afford the fees of normal self-defense providers.
Secondly, because people ask: “Why do you want to teach these women self-defense when your communities are already so violent?”.
And thirdly, because people are generally scared to drive into Lavender Hill.
But things happen for a reason, and this is why we are here today.”
“The solution starts with ME(N)”, a poster read at the protest in front of parliament. Reasons for gender-based violence are as complex as South Africa’s history is. Societal and cultural aspects play a role: Patriarchalism. Violence. Poverty. But nothing should ever be complex enough to avoid giving a shot at changing it.
“I think the single most important thing - which is a project that Fight Back SA is going to start working on this year - is we urgently need to implement positive masculinity classes in schools for boys and consent classes”, says Nicole. “It’s sad that we have to look at it along gender lines, but in the majority of the cases the offences are being committed by men. And often-time the South African police services don’t have the tools they need to gather the evidence from women who report these crimes, which means these men end up not being prosecuted. So, we need to start educating our young men, our boys, on consent and positive masculinity.”
Cyril Ramaphosa, South Africans president, gave a speech on the same day the protests happened. He condemned the violent actions and said that gender-based violence is not a problem of women, but one of men. Only words, no action - that’s the judgement a lot of protesters brought towards Ramaphosas speech. With the Corona Pandemic being the top problem to tackle, everything seems on hold, while the violence is raging more than ever. Fight Back, together with other organizations like the Helen Suzman Foundation are working on introducing a school curriculum to eradicate toxic masculinity and harmful gender stereotypes. This curriculum is aimed to become a national compulsory part of the school curriculum.
Lee-Anne Germanos for the Helen Suzman Foundation finishes a newly published article on gender-based violence in times of Corona with the following words:
“Gender based violence is potentially as indiscriminate and contagious a virus as COVID-19. Like the global effort being made to combat and defeat the COVID-19 pandemic, the same effort and commitment is required to defeat gender-based violence, which is a pandemic that has been around for much longer.”
It’s time to leave the school Hall. We get in the car, we lock the doors. Before we leave Lavender Hill behind us, and seek the safety of our privileged comfort in the city close to the mountains, I take one more look around, as we pass people walking, laughing, running in the streets, the rigid housing-blocks in the background, little shack-shops decorating the grey of the streets. As different as our lives may be, they aren’t all that different. We women hold our communities together, and we must stand together now and always. The violence women face - mostly in poor communities - is a challenge of our time and we will fight it, together. Feeling the spirit in the school Hall made me wander in my mind in awe. I am proud of being a woman and even more proud of standing with women. We shall rise and we shall Fight Back.