By Professor Puleng Segalo and Dr Tinyiko Chauke
Many South African women live in fear due to the high levels of gender-based violence (GBV). Moreover, one in five (21%) women in South Africa who have intimate partners, have experienced physical violence by their partners. More significantly, black women are identified in South Africa’s parliament report as the most vulnerable group to intimate partner violence due to their unemployment status, which is at an alarming rate of 30%. In 2021 and the first quarter of 2022 there were 902 cases of femicide, and 11,315 were sexual assault cases committed against women.However, People Opposing Women Abuse (POWA) is not convinced of the statistics as they believe that these do not provide a true reflection of women’s plight. They do acknowledge, however, that these statistics offer a glimpse of the seriousness of gendered violence in women’s everyday lives.
Therefore, it is critical to create spaces for dialogues to engage with the numerous ways in which gender-based violence affects women in the community. Visual methods and creative arts have been central to African social life and cultural construction even before colonialism took hold of African lives. We, therefore, draw from these methods to engage and reflect on the everydayness of GBV.
A work of art
Addressing social challenges through creative arts
Visual methods offer the vocabulary to often unspoken atrocities and traumas that people have experienced in their lives. Gender-based violence is a global challenge dubbed the parallel pandemic affecting communities alongside Covid-19. In a context such as South Africa where the unemployment rate is very high, many women stay in abusive relationships as alternatives do not appear to be in place. Therefore, it is critical to create dialogues, awareness, and empowerment opportunities where women can engage on alternatives and possibilities for better and safer lives. Visual participatory projects offer an opportunity for collective reflection, creating spaces for solidarity, and thinking differently about challenges confronting women. One such visual method is embroidery. Artworks such as embroideries force people to pause and reflect on the perpetual injustices and challenges confronting us daily. Furthermore, artistic visual images such as embroidery are useful tools that can be utilised to represent people’s reflections of their everyday experiences. Embroidery has the potential to contribute to how we make meaning of everyday realities, and how we can imagine the possible transformation of society. Gender-based violence has become an integral part of our lives — it has become part of ‘the everyday’, and it is therefore important to pay attention to this everydayness – the taken for granted; and how these have detrimental effects on the functioning of individuals, families, and ultimately, the whole society.
A call for action
Visual methodologies such as embroideries precipitate social change. They facilitate the co-production of knowledge in contexts where social injustice occurs. When shared publicly or disseminated on wider public platforms, such creative images have a wider reach, aiding critical awareness of the varied forms of oppression and sometimes raising awareness on the ways in which women internalise oppression knowingly and sometimes unknowingly. With embroidery, there is space to look beyond the perceived hopelessness where women are perceived as victims who do not have the power to change their circumstances. Instead, embroidery also highlights how women resist with the courage and determination to change their circumstances. Furthermore, embroidery offers the opportunity to highlight structural violence and inequalities (for example, patriarchy, unemployment, poverty, lack of access to proper education and health systems) that directly impact people’s everyday encounters. Women coming together to make embroideries that show how gender-based violence makes a home in all aspects of women’s lives, at the personal, the collective and the structural level, is a plea for action. The coming together further allows women to analyse policies and laws on GBV and how that affects their everyday lives.
Women’s embroideries in communities may also serve as props for public community dialogues. With the various themes that the embroideries highlight (e.g. being hassled in the streets, domestic violence, being accused of witchery, human trafficking, substance abuse, to name a few) we come together as academics, school learners, and community women at various places and platforms within the community to engage on what these themes mean to all of us. We come together to share stories of survival — share networking and referral processes — to speak about possible steps that could be taken by the communities themselves and how the government can take women’s concerns and recommendations forward to effect relevant policies on GBV.
It is clear that gender-based violence affects all of us either directly or indirectly. Therefore, the call for action is a challenge to all of us to play our role in the spaces we occupy. We should refuse to keep silent in the face of injustice and instead hold each other accountable and collectively work towards sustainable outcomes. From the micro to the macro level, attention has to be given to how gender-based violence affects us. After all, Women’s rights are human rights!
This blog post explores the Gender and Education Association 2021 funded research project titled Embroidery as a visual methodology that carves a bridge for dialogue, led by Professor Puleng Segalo.