Global Affairs Canada supports Traditional Healers’ Organization in combating gender-based violence I An observer’s perspective

By Marinda Weideman

Global Affairs Canada supports Traditional Healers’ Organization in combating gender-based violence I An observer’s perspective

The Traditional Healers Organization (THO) was established in 1970 as a not-for-profit self-regulatory ‘professional’ organization for Traditional Health Practitioners (THPs) in South Africa and Eswatini.

The Organization’s mission is “to organize, register, protect, and promote traditional healthcare through continuous advocacy for the practicing right of THPs”; and to promote the “human and health rights of persons wanting to access traditional forms of healthcare”.

The THO has extensive reach and influence. An estimated 70% of South Africans consult THPs. Furthermore, the THO has approximately 55,000 members, all of whom are THPs who have completed a compulsory five-day Traditional Primary Healthcare Training Program offered by the THO. Training content includes basic hygiene and sanitation practices, nature conservation, family planning, and relevant medical information on various prevalent diseases including diarrheal diseases, HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, tuberculosis, malaria, and Covid-19.

The THO is, therefore, in a unique position to influence the societal norms and behaviours that underpin gender-based violence (GBV). To capitalize on this position, the THO successfully applied for a rapid response grant from Global Affairs Canada’s Women’s Voice and Leadership Program.

The ZAR 100,000 grant (approximately USD5,500) was used to implement a pilot project that sought to raise awareness of GBV among THPs; and to train THPs on “human rights, sexual and reproductive health rights, gender development, sexual offences, related criminal procedures, and on providing basic counselling services” to victims of GBV and related forms of violence and abuse.

Photo Credit: Traditional Healers Organization (THO)

Over the period from March to November 2022, the THO trained 1100 THPs at nine workshops in two provinces (Limpopo and Mpumalanga). They also recruited 254 THPs to become ‘GBV ambassadors’.

The THO staff members who were interviewed for the project evaluation consider the project pilot a success, and advocate for a national roll-out. Staff members highlighted the following key successes:

  • The THO was able to build positive relationships with relevant external stakeholders such as the Departments of Health and Social Development, community-based organizations, representatives of the LGBTQIA+ community, as well as the South African Police Service.
  • GBV-related training now forms a permanent component of the 5-day training that is compulsory for all THO members.
  • THPs are approaching the THO for advice on responding to GBV cases, and indications are that victims are increasingly supported.

Responses from four traditional health practitioners who attended the GBV training sessions suggest that the sessions were effective in creating awareness of the importance of cooperating with the medical fraternity and the police; the prevalence of GBV; the need to report violence and criminality; the need to treat patients with respect; and the role THPs could play in supporting victims of GBV. The workshops also brought to light that THPs themselves sometimes engage in patriarchal or harmful attitudes and practices towards women, children, their clients, and their initiates.

“We learned about the pain that women experience in their lives. It was heartbreaking to listen to women telling their stories of abuse. We also heard from THPs and initiates who had perpetrated or experienced abuse. We learned about GBV and how we should treat women in our profession. That we should change our attitudes and the way we conduct our business. We learned that women are not objects for thrashing and beating, and that the victims of violence who came to us should find support. It is important that THPs stop beating their initiates during the training and initiation process. We also learned as men we should not abuse women and that we should teach other men how to treat women right, and that abusing women is not acceptable in our society”.

“A spokesperson from the Department of Health said that we should not treat the patient before they are medically checked. Someone might come asking for medication for stomach pain, but it could be that they are pregnant and that the medicine causes a miscarriage”.

One of the respondents reported changes in the way he lives his life, while two others reported changes in the way they work (or will work). This could be considered evidence of early impact.

“We were enjoying a family wedding. Later in the day, one of my brothers started shouting and wanted to beat his wife. I was able to intervene, and I put my brother in his place. Attending that workshop made me wise and I was able to stand up and openly tell them that women are not punching bags”.

“When women initiate reports that they are being abused by their husbands or boyfriends, I will now be able to help them. Some [victims of abuse] believe that they deserve it, [that it is in effect] a beating from the ancestors. I will tell them that it is abuse, and that abuse has nothing to do with namadlozi [ancestors]. A beating does not mean they are being rejected by the namadlozi (ancestors). I will tell them that they have to report the abuse to the police”.

“I calmed down a man who became angry with his wife during a treatment session. The bones revealed something that was not good for the couple. The man wanted to beat the woman on the spot, but I was able to intervene. After that, I provided counselling for a while. Now everything is back to normal, and we were all able to learn from the situation”.

“I have educated my initiates about what physical and emotional abuse is, and about [what constitutes] sexual harassment. I’m also a Sunday-school teacher, and I will also educate the children about sexual abuse”.

Workshop participants and THO staff members recognized the value of the GBV workshops and argued that more are required. However, responses also suggest that the current approach is too superficial to adequately address the need for credible information.

“We really need to have more of these workshops, because just in our area we have more than 100 qualified THPs, and 70% of them are taking in initiates and training them. That [the initiation process] requires additional, focused training. This type of workshop must reach every village and every traditional authority. The Zebediela workshop was attended by about 20 qualified THPs and about 100 Initiates. The workshop was very short, and we needed more information”.