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Workers spread sugarcane waste onto farmland in Sezela, South Africa. Photographer: Dean Hutton/Bloomberg

Fighting Abuse of Women in Western Cape Farmlands

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Wednesday, January 5th, 2022
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Workers spread sugarcane waste onto farmland in Sezela, South Africa. Photographer: Dean Hutton/Bloomberg
Workers spread sugarcane waste onto farmland in Sezela, South Africa. Photographer: Dean Hutton/Bloomberg

In part one of a four-part series on gender-based violence and grassroots activism, we look at an anti-GBV community-response team in the small Western Cape town of Klapmuts.

It is a tall order for an organisation with no funding to provide protection and safety for female victims of gender-based violence (GBV) 24 hours a day. But in the small town of Klapmuts, near Stellenbosch, a team of eight activist women are doing exactly that.

The Klapmuts anti-GBV community-response team was set up this year by the Ubuntu Rural Womxn and Youth Movement (Ubuntu Rural), a nine-year-old advice office that defends farmworkers against unfair dismissals and evictions.

Klapmuts is an impoverished town surrounded by vineyards, where many of the town’s residents work as farm labourers. During the hard lockdown in 2020, activists from Ubuntu Rural noticed that GBV cases were skyrocketing.

Although many from the organisation had no experience in dealing with cases of violence against women and children, they used their activist backgrounds, organising skills and paralegal training to come up with the idea of local, community-led, anti-GBV response teams that would be available for abused women and children around the clock.

The Klapmuts team has had no funding. They work from the library of the local primary school.

“We don’t have a blueprint for what we are doing but it is based on the understanding that women face multiple oppressions – when you are Black when you are rural when you are [a] migrant,” says Wendy Pekeur, 41, who set up the Grassroots Gender-Based Violence Alliance. Pekeur is also the founder of Ubuntu Rural. The alliance was launched on 29 November and it brings together local anti-GBV teams from across the province.

All the members of the Klapmuts anti-GBV teamwork voluntarily. “I just do this from the heart. Alcohol plays a big role here. Sometimes I also must speak to children who are beating their mothers,” says Annie Mitchell, 53, who works full time as a cleaner at the Klapmuts clinic, and is also the treasurer of Ubuntu Rural.

Different assignments and cases

Each anti-GBV team member has a focus. For example, Mitchell is on supporting children aged between seven and 13, while Rosie Links, 46, from the nearby Flenterskloof farm, focuses on drug abuse by young children.

“In the old times, women didn’t know what abuse was. They stayed silent and now they don’t have anything in place to take away that pain. We have broken people drinking and taking drugs. If we could only shift the children’s minds – they see the picture and they are caught tight in its grip, believing their lives will be the same,” says Links.

Margaret Zas, 54, works with teenage couples. There are instances where boys as young as 13 are abusing their 13-year-old girlfriends. “The boys threaten their girlfriends and say they are going to kill them. Also, many of the abused women will not leave their partners. They just want to be under his wing. My heart goes out to them,” says Zas.

The team also recently received training to help them cope with the heartbreaking situation of trying to support a woman with broken bones who will not leave the man who beat her.

“We don’t judge the woman or say, ‘Why doesn’t she leave?’ We understand the bird in the cage syndrome. We also train the women that if someone gets raped in the middle of the night, not to say, ‘What were you doing there?’ We never ask these questions because men shouldn’t rape,” said Pekeur.

In a recent case, a woman stabbed in the face returned to her abuser. So the anti-GBV team visited her at home every hour and held long discussions with the abusive partner. So far, the woman has not been abused again. Most of the time, the women stay because they have no income and have nowhere else to go, Mitchell says.

After starting the first team, Ubuntu Rural brought together 50 women from small towns across a 200km radius for training in counselling and for paralegal training in labour, land, domestic and sexual offences legislation. The women then went back to their small Western Cape towns to start anti-GBV community-response teams.

A history of service and activism

Pekeur has come a very long way with farmworkers and rural people in these parts. Before she founded Ubuntu Rural, she was general secretary of the women-led Sikhula Sonke farmworkers’ union. Pekeur negotiated for toilets to be set up in orchards and fought for provident funds and maternity leave for all female workers, be they seasonal or permanent.

She also campaigned for decent accommodation for farmworkers who contracted tuberculosis after being made to live in poor conditions. The activist also worked hard to convince the government to hand over a disused state-owned farm to about 260 farm workers who had been evicted from a farm and left to sleep on the roadside. She has also organised protest camps for farm workers facing dismissal and eviction outside the farms and vineyards of Stellenbosch and outside Parliament in Cape Town.

At the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration, Pekeur is a regular. She routinely represents farm workers in arbitrations. She does similar work in magistrates’ courts where she advocates against eviction orders. But these days she is overwhelmed by anti-GBV work. As the work of the teams becomes known, she receives calls for help from abused women from as far as 150km away.

“We have so many cases of intimate femicide too – women stabbed multiple times, killed with sjamboks and golf clubs. We are at every court case doing court support, ensuring the family has counselling. We are walking a path with those families and we don’t want more situations like that, so we do the preventative work too,” Pekeur said.

The activist was born to farmworker parents on an Elsenburg state farm, 10km away from Klapmuts. She still lives there, and has set up a safe house where abused women can find safety at any time of day. “Previously, if somebody was abused, they would knock at my door at 2am and I would take them in. Soon their men would arrive and get violent with me because, although the women had called the police when they were attacked, the police had allowed the men to run away. And you know the men can do anything in the middle of the night,” Pekeur says.

The advantage the local response teams have is that they are known from their activist work. Mitchell and Pekeur spend a lot of time speaking to abusive men about changing their behaviour, for example.

“I say to the men, ‘If you lift your hand one more time, I am going to make sure you get evicted from this farm.’ We have to be hard on them because when you stab a woman in the face, you can kill her,” Pekeur says.

The programme has, so far, only received a tiny grant from the government’s Covid-19 Solidarity Fund to conduct anti-GBV blitzes in communities and roadshows over a 200km radius.

Domestic violence is so prevalent that, “we had five, six cases of women with blue eyes and broken bodies while we were on the roadshows,” Pekeur says.

At other times, the team speaks to employers when women cannot go to work because they are injured, to make sure they do not lose their jobs. They also help mothers whose children are not in school by taking children for vaccinations, fundraising for school shoes and persuading school principals to admit children who are waiting for birth certificates.

“Young boys – they can’t be 11 or 13 years old and they’ve never been in school. That’s also a form of abuse, along with hunger. That’s the stuff we deal with,” Pekeur says.

This year, each member of an anti-GBV team will choose an area to specialise in, such as counselling, paralegal work and working with children, the elderly or disabled people. They will have intensive training.

“And then we can all collaborate – that is the next step for us, to strengthen each other’s hands and multiply this work,” Pekeur says.

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