By Ella Wesselink
This article is exclusive to the Online Edition 8 of VARSITY News.
Acknowledgements: Ben Tilley, Amelia Deary, Baxter Juds, Victoria Arthur and Emma Leslie
On the 30th of June this year I attended the Gender Based Violence March outside parliament with one of my closest friends. Still worried about lockdown and the risk a large crowd posed, we were in two minds about attending. Ultimately, we knew which was more important.
The protest uniquely captured and captivated every person in attendance. I imagine that all involved experienced the same intense level of intimacy and empathy that I did – standing as a singular powerful force against gender-based violence (GBV). The day balanced silent respectful
grievance for those lost with a raging anger on their behalf, which, if not felt from the beginning, was ignited within us all throughout the day.
I was reassured by the great effort the organisers of the march went through to make people
feel safe and comfortable. Hand sanitiser and water bottles were freely distributed along with
constant reminders to wear your mask and keep an appropriate social distance from one
The march was a female dominated space. While this powerful display of feminist force was
extremely valuable in fostering solidarity and empowerment, it highlighted what many of us
already felt – women are fighting this battle almost entirely alone. For GBV issues to be
taken seriously in law and cultural practise men need to be present and engaging with the
problem. Open protests, displays of resistance and practical steps towards change should
come from the men of South Africa as much as from our women.
A male friend of mine who attended the march explained that participation in such events should not be a choice. Gender inequality is perpetuated by the complacency and indifference of men in society. Each and every man has the responsibility to actively be part of the solution – neutrality is not an option. It only adds to the existing disparate gender hierarchies and power dynamics within South Africa. A conscious opposition to patriarchal ideas is necessary. We must shift how we think, engage and behave. Too many women have suffered at the hands of a system that doesn’t serve them.
Protesting is fundamentally about bringing awareness to suppressed issues in the hope that change follows. A large part of participating in protests like the GBV march is standing in solidarity with survivors of GBV, showing support and assuring them that they are not alone in this fight. The march provided a space to listen, to share, to inform and to care for one another. It created a platform for women, who have previously felt voiceless, to tell their stories with the full force of their emotions. Anger, sadness, anxiety and joyful, cathartic release were all welcome and encouraged.
I found that there was something so special about being part of the march and a lot of the feelings and thoughts I had on that day have shaped my new understanding of gender based violence. However, so much of our activism these days, specifically with the Covid-19 pandemic, happens online and over social media which has created a whole new incredible arena for social engagement with these issues. I hope people keep posting on their Instagram stories, they keep protesting, they support those who need it and most of all that they keep fighting the fight. I hope that this activism, in whatever form, continues to create change.
All the Girls of August:
An artwork by Emma Leslie
This time last year I started drawing the women who died at the hands of gender-based violence over August. I drew them trying to process what was going on and as a tribute to their lives and their mourning families. Out of the 16 Western Cape women, Uyinene is one of the few faces people recognise because of her prolific media coverage. On the other end of the spectrum are 4 faceless women – no images have appeared of them online – while other victims have been afforded only a single pixelated photograph.
I paired each individual with an object related to her death or the minimal background information I could find about her. The objects feature a line about the woman’s story while the image of her is coupled with a line from Sylvia Plath’s Mushrooms. Plath’s poem suggests that one day the ‘meek […] shall by morning / Inherit the earth’. The poem’s words give strength to the seemingly submissive, the underdogs.
I hope that these drawings give hope to women across South Africa that we will rise from the sorrow of death and violence, even more powerful than before.
This work is dedicated to
and to those before and after them.