The Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) has collaborated with the Mining and Environmental Justice Community Network of South Africa (MEJCON-SA) and the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) to host a series of workshops around the country on gender-based violence (GBV) and harassment.
The workshops took place in Lephalale and Sekhukhune in Limpopo province in July, in Soweto in Gauteng during August and in Steenbok near Komatipoort in Mpumalanga in October.
Members of CER’s Activist Support and Training team joined forces with facilitators from the partner organisations to present interactive workshops with local environmental activists in each area.
The workshops addressed themes such as the power dynamics that are often at play in South African society that fall along both gender and socio-economic lines, issues around consent and different types of abuse that can happen in which both men and women can be the victim, such as financial and emotional abuse.
Poor communities disproportionately bear the burden of pollution and environmental degradation. In many places the scarcity of natural resources and escalating environmental degradation perpetuates GBV and gender inequality, in turn this leads to vulnerable community members having access to fewer resources. It is for this reason that CER and MEJCON-SA recognised the need to work together with local activists to raise awareness of these issues.
“In both Lephalale and Sekhukhune the workshops led to wide ranging discussions on the issues of GBV and harassment and how these issues play out in people’s lives every day,” says Dimakatso Sefatsa, CER attorney and one of the presenters on the day.
“The participants engaged deeply with questions such as ‘what does a healthy community look like?’, ‘how do experience gender inequality in everyday life’ and ‘what challenges persist in creating and maintaining safe spaces’.”
According to Thobeka Gumede, an attorney who works within CER’s Activist Support and Training team and one of the presenters at the workshops, these interactions highlight just how relevant and pressing these issues are.
“We know that South Africa has some of the highest rates of GBV in the world. Women activists working on issues of environmental justice are often particularly vulnerable, with rates of intimidation, threats and physical violence rising steeply in recent years. Our aim with these workshops is provide a forum in which we can have honest discussions about these problems and how to better support the activists who are working at the frontlines on environmental justice in South Africa.”
The GBV workshops in Mpumalanga were held in a small village called Steenbok which is surrounded by sugar cane fields and close to the Nkomazi anthracite mine. The workshops, which were held over two days, were conducted in a participatory and engaging manner where everyone was encouraged to share their experiences and ideas. While most participants spoke in SiSwati, the workshops were conducted across a number of languages to accommodate everyone. Participants explored power dynamics between victims and perpetrators, role-played different stereotypes and spoke about tools to address the scourge of gender-based violence in their communities.
Danjelle Midgley, an attorney in CER’s Activist Support and Training Programme who attended the Mpumalanga workshops found it heartening to see how the participants were eager to address gender-based violence in their communities and work, and to build solidarity and develop tools and safe places for victims.
“While the sessions were attended by a majority of women, the men present participated equally – including those from the leadership of MEJCON-SA who acknowledged their position and their ability and mandate to change the status quo in relation to gender attitudes and sexual harassment.”