‘Justice and Women’s model of individual empowerment usurps patriarchal norms and practices in rural KwaZulu-Natal | An observer’s perspective

By Marinda Weideman

‘Justice and Women’s model of individual empowerment usurps patriarchal norms and practices in rural KwaZulu-Natal | An observer’s perspective

(The data below is from internal project documents or interviews and focus group discussions conducted by the author during a project monitoring exercise on behalf of Global Affairs Canada).

Since its establishment in 2006, Justice and Women (JAW) has worked to contribute to gender equality and justice by empowering women and challenging patriarchal power relations in individual, institutional and social spaces, and practices.

JAW works in urban Pietermaritzburg where it facilitates women’s access to justice (i.e., obtaining protection orders), and in Mthonjaneni, a rural area that forms part of the Ingonyama Trust and is regulated by traditional authorities and the customary values and practices of the Zulu nation.

In July 2020, JAW received funding from Global Affairs Canada for its ‘Vulamehlo’ project to challenge the patriarchal customary values that give rise to gender oppressive practices and the acceptance of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). JAW argues that the “patriarchal attitudes and beliefs that underpin harmful customary practices are abusive at multiple levels (i.e., physical, emotional, sexual, financial, and spiritual) and are ingrained through socialization of children in which women carry much of the responsibility, making women and men perpetrators of unquestioned violence”.

Photo Credit: Justice and Women

The project, therefore, aims to implement an evidence-based model that enhances community awareness of the root causes and consequences of power imbalances between men and women, and to build capacity to address power imbalances that result in the oppression of others.

This model involves recruiting community volunteers from groups to which people have a value connection (e.g., faith-based groups, traditional leaders, community health workers, youth groups and burial societies).

The volunteers are equipped with the knowledge and skills necessary to identify and reflect on their own gendered attitudes and abusive behaviors, and to work towards changing these. This process motivates the volunteers to reach out to others within their circles of influence and to support them to undergo the same learning and behavior change.

Photo Credit: Justice and Women

Volunteers are then trained to conduct workshops where they utilize role-play and comedy to interrogate power relations in the wider community in a non-threatening way.

Although only approximately 75% of the project had been implemented at the time the author conducted the monitoring exercise, it was clear that it had been effectively implemented, had brought about profound change and would have a sustained positive impact on the community.

Study participants reported improved family relationships; more balanced divisions of labor and responsibility within families; an understanding that all family members are valuable and have a role to play; a reduction in stress; an increase in women’s ability to access their inheritance; an increase in women’s ability to access power; improved inter-generational communication; an increase in the number of men and women who report SGBV as well as of people external to families reporting child abuse and domestic violence; a reduction in substance abuse; improved relationships with the police; effective referrals to psychosocial support services; the empowerment of traditional authorities to correctly and effectively provide support in cases of SGBV; an increased willingness of community members to approach traditional authorities with SGBV; and the empowerment of women and girls.

Photo Credit: Justice and Women

Below are quotes from volunteers and community members who attended JAW’s workshops, traditional leaders, and external stakeholders:

“80% of women have been transformed positively and continue to rewrite their own unoppressive cultural belief systems. With a great amount of confidence, they continue to speak up for themselves”.

“I used to divide the labor between boys and girls but now I have become less gender specific. Now the boys clean and cook too”.

“There have been situations where neighbours have seen their neighbour’s children being abused but are afraid to report them . . . But things have changed, now people can come report matters without fear of discrimination and even males have been coming to the social worker reporting that they too are being abused.”.

“I grew up knowing that girls were meant to do all house chores and boys didn’t have to do anything. When I joined JAW things changed and we did things differently. Boys have a duty to fetch water so do the girls. We all do gardening, washing dishes, sweeping the yard, etc. You must set an example for the community . . .”.

“I am the mother in the home, living with my husband. I used to bottle things up. I used to keep my peace until I learnt that I had to speak about what was bothering me. I started speaking with my family. It changed my relationship with my daughters, sons, and husband”.

“I helped my neighbor who has a disabled daughter. She told me that someone raped her child. I used the JAW strategy to help her. . . the following day my neighbor went to the police station to report the case. I heard . . . that the rapist had fled to Johannesburg, but that the police went to Johannesburg as well. . . I would like to thank JAW for opening my eyes and [teaching me to] use my power”.

“The amakhosi called JAW and said a rape case was reported to him and that he referred the case to the police. He said the 16 Days of Activism that JAW facilitated was effective because such cases had never been reported to him before and he has been with this community for years. He said that attending the 16 Days of Activism encouraged community members to bring the matter to his attention and he was able to intervene and provide help.”

“Some of the community members in Ndundulu were involved in violence – stabbings, fights, and alcohol abuse. It is different now and violence had decreased because of JAW’s intervention. . . Also, the youth in Ndundulu have become entrepreneurial and are opening small businesses. They are no longer abusing alcohol”.

Other key successes of this project include creating high levels of trust in a community previously characterized by a severe deficit in social capital; building strong relationships with traditional leaders; and utilizing young male volunteers to change societal relationships.

“Male youth were employed as project volunteers and their involvement with the group of older women added enormous value to the understanding of the impact of gendered socialization in customary practices. Youth spoke of how they felt emotionally abandoned at a young age by their mothers who discouraged close relationships with them for fear that they would grow-up “soft/effeminate” boys. This led to a lengthy discussion about how men struggled to understand how to love, since they themselves had never experienced close emotional primary relationships with women. The mothers listened intently to the youths’ sadness and vowed to go home to start showing love to their boys. The youth in turn listened to women’s accounts of abuse at the hands of their partners and started reflecting on their treatment of their partners. For both groups this was the first time they talked meaningfully with each other across the age and gender divides”.