By Christina Schild
Say their names. Amplify their voices. Know their truth. This is how we quote those we have lost.
The inescapability of gender-based violence in South Africa is harrowing. Voices are continually drowned out. When, in his address to the nation on June 17, SA President Cyril Ramaphosa named the 21 women and children killed between March and mid-June this year, he finally acknowledged an omnipresent second pandemic and lived reality. The national sexual violence and femicide crisis is demonstrated via figures five times higher than global levels, hashtags and online movements calling for action. Peaceful protests are disrupted and the assault, rape and murder of South African women and children has only intensified during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Amid this chaos, Quote This Woman+ (QW+) continues to seek out the exceptional efforts of those amplifying women+’s voices, generating alternative narratives and celebrating resilience.
QW+ proudly acknowledges the strength and commitment of the 20 000 women who marched in 1956 and the ancestors, families and influences teaching, raising and equipping the women of today. But this pride is dampened by femicide rates and realities for South African women which are neither silent nor subtle.
A nation-wide crisis, rape and sexual violence disproportionately affect women and girls in South Africa with its deeply entrenched and systemic violence and gendered power imbalances (Saferspaces.org.za). In 2017 the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) termed gender-based violence a crisis in South Africa, which was publicly demonstrated with the Total Shutdown Protests in 2019 and the ‘worst month’ for rape and femicide in August of that year (Masweneng, 2017; Mfundisi, 2020).
Do you remember the national mourning and anger during 2019?
#NotInMyName #AmINext #EnoughIsEnough and #SAShutDown were trending, and national anger and grief were palpable as women were lost in quick succession. The number of reported rapes rose 3.9% to 41,583, the highest recorded in four years (Cohen and Vecchiatto, 2019). In the same year, 2,771 women were murdered.
How do we operate as a society when over 130 sexual offences are committed daily? Is it that we have become, as Tsamme Mmammone Mfundisi writes, remarkably desensitised and numbed to this ‘national pain’ and the predictability that “each August, the news platforms fill up with stories of gender-based violence?” (2020).
Despite mounting evidence of the crisis and the public outrage, government change has been slow, leading to growing frustration. Reports on who has been raped and murdered are superficial, or appear in numbed-out text-heavy articles with heinous crimes and faceless names adding to a list that we can no longer process.
But voices with a loyalty to gendered experiences have arisen.
An artist’s response
To try to humanise statistics and use the collective female voice to pay tribute to the women and children murdered through gender-based violence, Capetonian artist Emma Leslie portrays the faces and names of Western Cape women killed since August 2019 with emotional responsibility and creativity. This project aligns with the QW+ ethos of amplifying women+ voices, honouring perspectives and celebrating, where we can, the wins against gender injustices and crimes.
How do we remember them without drawing a shawl of anxiety and grief over our shoulders? Do we continue to choke over their names and swallow down the facts of their cases, packing the media pages into the bags on our backs and sinking into narratives of fear?
Ramaphosa said: “Their killers thought they could silence them. But we will not forget them and we will speak for them where they cannot.” Through her art, Leslie has let them speak for themselves and for others to find their own voices.
Leslie is a University of Cape Town (UCT) student whose personal connections to (and intentions with) her art were dramatically shifted by the 2019 UCT GBV protests following the murder of 19-year-old UCT student Uyinene Mrwetyana.
“For three years I had been making art that, while interesting to me at the time, meant nothing beyond myself and had no impact on those around me. I began drawing pictures of all the women who had died in the Western Cape over that month. I did not intend to do anything with the drawings but as I was making them and processing my own feelings of anger and sadness other people began to respond to the works in much the same way. The process was cathartic for me and I could see that same healing happening in small ways in those around me who saw the drawings.”
Leslie used sketches from her notebooks, with varying instances of completeness “based on how often they appeared in the media. For someone like Uyinene Mrwetyana, the drawing is complete because of her extensive news coverage. However, there are four women in the body of work who have not appeared in the media and are therefore faceless on the pages”.
Studies and reports have unpacked the distortions of gender-based and domestic violence in South Africa, skewing justifications as provocations and unassigned responsibility and carrying the voices of male experts and sources (Cohen and Vecchiatto, 2019; Isaacs, 2014; Mpani and Nsibane, 2015).
We cannot champion for representation without accountability for those unable to tell their stories, heritage and individual experiences. Every day must be necessarily all-encompassing in our fight against sexual violence, intimate partner violence, and femicide..
Leslie uses ‘Mushrooms’ by Sylvia Plath to empower the women in her images with poetry that suggests their reclamation of identity and that they did not die in vain.
“I wanted to represent the women as powerful and empowered. Plath’s poem refers to the ‘meek’ inheriting the earth and that is the voice I wanted to give to the women. For those who have died at the hands of gender-based violence, Plath’s poem suggests that karma will come for their killers. Plath’s words also give hope and strength to the women fighting gender-based violence and a patriarchal world every single day,” Leslie says.
We should not fall into a “discourse of pathology” and portray domestic violence as a direct consequence of individual dysfunction or victim-blaming, nor allow media representations or accounts to fall into stereotypical or gendered narratives with this multi-faceted and necessarily contextual issue (Isaacs, 2014: 99).
We are reminded of the recent powerful Between 10 and 5 art series paying tribute to gender-based violence victims in an illustrated portrait series, and the accessibility and memorability of this as an interactive piece. Throughout our lives, posters, drawings and photographs of women have moved with us as invocations, ideals, tributes; there is space on the walls of our rooms for the victims of GBV, a platform for their voices to ensure that we #LeaveNoVoiceBehind.
Leslie accomplishes this but says “knowing I will never be able to draw fast enough to keep up with the statistics is heart-breaking. I hope that the pieces reflect the concentration and care I take with each image and that the time spent on capturing each women’s story speaks to the many more precious lives lost.”
A healing process
Headlines are passed over with tired eyes and statistics that offer 1 in X shake us. We think of the women we know and worry for those we don’t. When Leslie published her artwork on the private Facebook group, ‘SA Women Fight Back’, she was humbled by the thousands of comments, appreciative and grateful for this work which is in itself a healing process.
“Art has the power to make people more empathetic and sensitive to injustice. The medium and message of a piece can change someone’s perception of society’s ills and hopefully encourage them to initiate real change. Mainstream news coverage can often feel too overwhelming to truly take in, but an impactful artwork can stay with you.”
Calls for action and structural change are not limited to the op-ed pieces, academia or political manifestos. It is the work and commentary of ordinary women that remains once the media storm has passed on. Leslie is all too aware of this, unpacking the media treatment of the women lost. This is how we associate with the names we read and involve them in our lives as markers of change and protest.
“I hope that these pieces break through the stream of constant but superficial media coverage surrounding the women who have died. I want each woman to be remembered and valued as special and unique, having had an important life and been important in others’ lives, not just another name and face on a poster… The reach of an artwork is greater than words because of the emotional connection it offers. The vulnerability expressed through art latches onto our own vulnerability as viewers. Art is able to make us feel something more powerful and more intimate than words ever could.”
You’re either a faces or names person, ‘they’ say, sorting us into boxes carried as excuses for forgetting. While Uyinene Mrwetyana’s death was internationally published and the pain rippled out, there are many girls and women in South Africa for whom there are no headlines, online trends or final resting places. For these, remembrance is the tribute and trial that is just. It is how we use our emotions and energy towards critical thought, action and systemic change. These are not our stories to tell, but ours to support.
“I want women who weren’t afforded media coverage and appropriate tributes to be heard. I want the women too afraid to speak up to be heard and I want the voices of those who have died to be heard … The collective female voice needs to be shouted from every corner of the news, social media, around the dinner table, in the street, from podiums and platforms and bedrooms and boardrooms. My singular voice is not important in the conversation unless it is part of a collective ‘enough is enough’.”
The presentation of sexual violence and these women through art is disruptive to our conditioning, influencing our perceptions and patterns. In this processing and consumption of art we are offered the chance to re-educate ourselves, do the work and consider our own reactions to, and handling of GBV.
Creative works and self-publishing offer the ordinary citizen the opportunity to add their voice to the rallying call of organisations and projects that ‘enough is enough’. Leslie is aware of her impact. “I am under no illusion that my work is impactful on a large scale. I know that reaching a wide audience and getting them to initiate change requires far more than a few hopeful drawings. However, I also know that I have helped individuals close to some of the women and girls I have drawn, or personally affected by their deaths and that connection is important to me.”
The original Facebook post has generated over 400 comments and 1000 reactions, undoubtedly giving rise to more than one conversation, a start in the direction Leslie thinks we need to be moving towards. “I think change happens through each one of us having more conversations, calling more things out and taking the time to educate ourselves and those around us on a personal level. Yes, protests and marches and petitions and seminars are crucial, but everyone needs to alter their views and actions individually for universal shifts to occur.”
In a nation frustrated with lack of progressive transformation structurally and socially in relation to violence against women and girls, Women’s Month ushered in a renewed vigour in conversations and protest actions. Art emerges as a universally inclusive platform for sharing, diversification of media and healing. For Leslie, it humanises the crimes. “I think the more we can encourage people to comprehend the significance of the lives lost, the more likely they are to act and create meaningful change. Understanding the value and specificity of each and every woman who has died is crucial as it fosters a personal connection between the victim and viewer. Hearing the women as mere statistics in the media does little to spark change. The gravity of the violence inflicted upon them and the tragedy of their deaths cannot be understood through numbers.”
Gender violence discussions and actions are no longer restricted to the academic or protest atmospheres – these are the daily acts of embodying women’s’ power and an opportunity to enact change, the voices rising higher and the spaces occupied.
Within the individual creation and cathartic drive influencing this art series, Leslie works with subjective narratives of loss and pain and so strings together collective energy, connectivity and ‘everyday’ activism. While we continue to support the organisations, policies and campaigns surrounding gender violence, this art series shows how we move protest into every day, how our silences are broken when voices are hushed and when the physical becomes wholly political. Through seeing the faces of those lost to GBV, we are reminded of the women that our everyday fight is for and the atrocities we are against, that our resilience is malleable and poignant. Your body is political and your voice is vital: use it.
- Emma Leslie is currently working on commissions for those who have lost loved ones under tragic circumstances. She is glad to “provide some form of happy remembrance and release to families and friends who have gone through such atrocities.”
- Christina Schild is a volunteer worker for Quote This Woman+, an aspiring environmental anthropologist and learning roamer by choice.
Emma Leslie, 2020. Personal communication.
Cohen, M., and Vecchiatto, P., 2019. ‘Horror of Gender-Based Violence Revealed in South African Report’. Bloomberg.com. Available from: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-09-12/horror-of-gender-based-violence-revealed-in-south-african-report
Ellis, E., 2020. ‘Gender-based violence is South Africa’s second pandemic, says Ramaphosa’. DailyMaverick.co.za. Available from: https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2020-06-18-gender-based-violence-is-south-africas-second-pandemic-says-ramaphosa/
Francke, R-L., 2019. ‘Thousands protest in South Africa over rising violence against women’. TheGuardian.com. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/sep/05/thousands-protest-in-south-africa-over-rising-violence-against-women
Isaacs, D. H., 2014. ‘Social representations of domestic violence against women in the media: A South African study.’ University of Cape Town.
Masweneng, K., 2017. ‘Susan Shabangu says violence against women not a crisis’. TimesLive.co.za. Available from: https://www.timeslive.co.za/politics/2017-08-30-susan-shabangu-says-violence-against-women-not-a-crisis/
Mfundisi, T., M., 2020. ‘It is time to stop normalising Gender-Based Violence’. Health-E News. Available from https://health-e.org.za/2020/08/18/south-africa-normalises-gender-based-violence/
Mpani, P., and Nsibande, N., 2015. ‘Understanding Gender Understanding Gender Policy and Gender- Based Violence in South Africa: A Literature Review’. For Soul City: Institute for Health & Development Communication. Available from: https://www.soulcity.org.za/campaigns/gbv/resources/understanding-gender-policy-and-gender-based-violence-in-south-africa-a-literature-review
Ratsela, K., 2019. ‘SAMRC to commence the third National Femicide Study’. South African Medical Research Council. Available from: https://www.samrc.ac.za/media-release/samrc-commences-third-femicide-report
Saferspaces.org.za. 2020. ‘Gender-based violence in South Africa’. Available from: https://www.saferspaces.org.za/understand/entry/gender-based-violence-in-south-africa
Weiner, J., 2020. ‘COVID-19 and Domestic Violence in South Africa’. Oxford Human Rights Lab. Available from: http://ohrh.law.ox.ac.uk/covid-19-and-domestic-violence-in-south-africa/