I was one of the delegates chosen by our Department of Social Development’s Victim Empowerment (VEP) Directorate, to be sponsored to attend.
It was a collective of people all grappling with the global issues of sexual violence. Researchers, activists, Human Rights Groups, Statutory Organisations, victims and then the NGO sector, like us, who delivery direct services to victims of Violence and crime.
Research papers were presented from a variety of African countries, Cambodia, Afghanistan, India, Palestine, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Haiti, Kazakhstan, Jamaica, UK, Brazil, Australia, Jordan, Nepal, New Zealand, Middle East, Asia-Pacific, Mongolia, Bhutan, Lebanon and Bolivia.
A broad spectrum of research was covered, including Men and Masculinities, Intimate Partner Violence and Economics, Sexual Harassment, Working with Violence and Trauma, Violence and Technology, People with disabilities and Gender Based Violence, Homicide and Femicide, Child, early and forced marriages, Faith Based Interventions and a range of other aligned topics.
The conference raised many challenging and uncomfortable questions. The Plenary sessions gave a focused view on specifics to consider and then we could choose from a variety of exceptionally well organised sub sessions, that ran from 09h00 until 20h00 each day.
As my job is to deliver and oversee a team who provide direct services to victims of violence and crime, the topics of interest to me were around Masculinities and evidence based, successful GBV intervention programmes, mainly those from our continent.
The research presented acted as a platform to question approaches and findings with relation to our Community Cohesion work, and the services provided by our VEP colleagues, from all our SA provinces, who were also sponsored delegates.
We spent much time together in discussion on the findings and whether they correlated with our on-the-ground work.
In some cases, yes, there was definite synergy. In others, there was a huge gap between research and what is happening on the ground. One of the most notable areas was the follow up research presented after a 4-year study done in Bangladesh questioning whether cash transfers to female participants would cause sustained reductions in intimate partner violence. Our collective SA experience was that where the women were economically empowered, even for short periods as part of a study or beneficiaries of upskilling start-up capital, GBV and IPV increased, as this was another facet of emasculation experienced by many of our SA men.
We also questioned why so many of the studies were based in Africa, mostly in impoverished rural or urban settings. Many of us African’s were becoming sceptical at seeing endless slides of African women, men and children. It could be argued that we were internalising our lived experience, but it prompted us to ask the question: why is no research being done into middle and upper middle class IPV and GBV? The answer we received was wholly unsatisfactory and went along the lines of ‘ it is hard to find research subjects from that demographic, and the levels of IPV are not as high.’ (Cue collective indignation noise, mutterings and gasps).
That unsatisfactory answer provided fuel for many heated conversations later that night as it speaks to a pre-conceived bias around GBV and IPV. It is blatantly untrue that the middle to upper middle classes are exempt from GBV and IPV.
One main point that lingered is the way we talk about GBV.
How do we talk about the violence of men? How do we change the way we talk about women; at present we are either victims or survivors? How do we talk about cultural bias against disruptive femininities in our communities? What does gender equality mean in a far more conservative or traditional society that we would like to admit? How do we have meaningful and at times uncomfortable conversations about culturally appropriate tools to dismantle male dominance and the accepted perspectives into traditional masculinity? How do we discuss culturally sanctioned GBV and IPV?
These are heavy questions. They need to be answered and factored into our work if we are to have any kind of meaningful shift towards universal Gender Equality.
Overall, the SVRI2019 conference was an emotional experience. The subject matter was disturbing, there is no escaping that horror in my line of work. It left me feeling challenged, frustrated, angry, confused but overall, optimistic. That last emotion might appear directly opposed to the subject matter, but I know that we are working on solutions. That our VEP colleagues throughout South Africa are doing the same.
We are not nearly where we should be in terms of GBV, IPV and Gender Equality, but we are getting there; client by client, therapeutic group by therapeutic group, social education workshop by social education workshop, community by community and that is cause for positivity.