Sandisiwe Gaiza, Zethu Jiyana, Philiswa Melissa Lufele, Zamahlubi Mabhengu, Bongiwe Maome, Bongiwe Mhambi, Lelethu Mlobeli, Asisipho Mntonga, Takatso Mohlomi, Wandiswa Momoza, Happy Mthethwa, Elethu Ntsethe, Zikhona Samantha Tshiwula, and Thina Kamnqa. 2016. 14 Times a Woman: Indigenous Stories From the Heart. Port Elizabeth, South Africa: Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University.
This is a collection of autobiographical essays, by 14 young women, set in different rural villages in Eastern Cape, South Africa. These young women, who had been victims of different forms of violence in their lives, are university students. At the time of writing their stories, most of them were in the final year of their Bachelor of Education degree. As I was reading this collection I realized how courageous the journeys were that these young women undertook from their first undergraduate year when they joined a research project, Digital Media for Change and Well-being: Girl-led ‘From the Ground Up’ Policy-making in Addressing Sexual Violence at a South African University, led by Naydene de Lange, Relebohile Moletsane, and Claudia Mitchell, aimed at empowering young women and girls to challenge and fight against all forms of violence directed at women and children. (The unofficial name these participants gave to their project is Girls Leading Change.) Then they were bruised, hurt, and confused young women with low self-esteem and a strong sense of having been rejected. They emerged triumphant in their fourth year as activists and as independent, confident, mature, happy, and wise individuals. These young writers opened their hearts to let us in and give us a glimpse of their life struggles and to show us in their victorious testimonies how they turned these struggles around. The narratives weave together lived experiences from these different courageous individuals so as to create a real feminist outcry with voices that seem so intimate, so close to us that we feel we know these young women personally. I know that through diligent attention to their education, these young women will fulfil their own promises to find their way out of poverty and destitution.
The research project in which they participated is part of a larger one, Networks for Change and Well-being: Girl-led ‘From the Ground Up’ Policy-making in Addressing Sexual Violence in Canada and South Africa led by Claudia Mitchell and Relebohile Moletsane. As we know, violence against women has destroyed many families and societies worldwide and this university student research project seeks to prevent this from happening by empowering young women who will work towards mending the tattered social fabric. The project exposed these young women to a wide range of visual methodologies aimed at creating a safe space in which they could discuss social issues that included a wide range of topics like sexual violence, poverty, teenage pregnancy, and bullying—subjects they might not have engaged with in their academic programs.
Given the range of topics the young women discussed in the project, this collection of essays has some overlapping themes related to these topics. For example, the narratives of some of these young writers show how they succumbed to peer-pressure and found themselves engaging in sexual activities with their partners, not because they were ready to do so but because they wanted to please their partners and also to fit in with their friends. As Zethu Jiyana writes, “I was now in an environment where relationships without sex did not exist and where none of my friends were virgins” (31). Here we can see the power of peer pressure on the life of a young woman who found herself disregarding her family values and principles and choosing to please other people instead. However, the narratives show that this narrator and the other young women learned a lesson from their mistakes and rose again to reclaim their future; they are all now close to completing their first degree.
Physical and emotional abuse along with sexual and domestic violence also feature as a common theme in this collection. Zikhona Samantha Tshiwula tells us that “the father of [her] child started to abuse [her] both physically and emotionally.” She adds that he “was so jealous when he saw [her] walking with [her] friends that he abused [her] in front of them (37). In her essay, Bongiwe Maome describes how she felt imprisoned and entrapped in a vicious cycle of domestic violence at home. She writes, “I grew up in a home where domestic violence was the norm” (17). She says, “I was angry with [my father] for stealing my childhood from me, for preventing us from being a normal happy family” (18).
The subject of poverty is another strand that is evident in this collection of essays. Many of the writers found themselves in dire situations. As Thina Kamnqa points out, “In my first year I struggled with my studies … I was suffering financially… sometimes I would run out of bus fare and would be forced to stay at home and not attend lectures” (25). Happy Mthethwa tells us about how little food she could afford. “I would wake up at 02.00, boil eggs and cook pap [stiff porridge] … to last the whole week (49). However, these young women now realize that poverty does not define who they are. Zamahlubi Mabhengu makes this clear: “I do not need flashy clothes to be a woman but I need to believe in myself and know that I am strong enough and the struggles I have experienced have shaped me” (13). They also realize that irrespective of their poverty stricken backgrounds their future is not bleak and hopeless but is, rather, bright and hopeful. We see Philiswa Melissa Lufele’s determination to carry out her mother’s advice: “Now go and come back with that degree, because that is not just a degree, but OUR ONE-WAY TICKET OUT OF POVERTY.” She tells us, “I could do it. I could do it, and in fact I did it” (60).
The effects of bullying and low self- esteem feature as another common theme in this collection. Asisipho Mntonga talks about how her poverty led to her being bullied at school. She says, “[I]n my lunch-box was black coffee with no sugar, and stiff dried porridge” (39). She goes on to say, “My mother used to say that I was ugly, and that I had a big mouth. Being told by my own mother all those negative things about me did not do me any good. Instead, it poisoned me to hate myself” (39) She adds, “Learners gossiped about me…. [and] nobody wanted to share [the textbook] with me (40). Schools and homes are meant to provide safe, caring, and loving environments for children but some of these young writers were subjected to bullying and ridicule at school by their peers and teachers, and also sometimes at home by their family members. This is evident in Wandiswa Momoza’s opening words: “The worst thing that ever happened in my life was when I turned into a victim of bullying.” She writes about “a boy who was older … who would hit [her], tease [her] and take [her] lunch box (27). The narratives show how this kind of emotional violation resulted in these young women being consumed by self-doubt and self-hatred with its concomitant low self-esteem. For Lelethu Mlobeli, however, school was a refuge from the bullying she was subjected to at home. At home, she says, “My father and mother … would argue, and my father would blame me for the argument.” Of school she says, “I would feel some sort of healing … because I felt love and freedom there” (52).
Another moving theme in this collection concerns the effects of death in the family. For some writers the death of their fathers, who were the main breadwinners for the family, had devastating consequences. In her essay, Sandisiwe Gaiza laments the inevitable hardship she knew would follow the death of her father, and also grieves being unable to pay her last respects to him. She writes, “I knew my mom could not afford to pay the school fees and feed me. The most painful thing is that I couldn’t go to his funeral, because he was married to another woman” (21). When Bongiwe Mhambi’s father died, her mother told her “to pack [her] stuff and come home because there was no one who could afford to pay [her] fees” (45). Bongiwe tells us that had all this not happened she “would not have become an activist against woman abuse” (46).
While these young writers discuss critical social issues that affected them directly, they do not accept defeat. Their voices are those of activists who now challenge the gross social injustices in our society. These autobiographical stories demonstrate the power of self-love, self-respect, and the strength of these young women. Takatso Mohlomi’s advice to herself is striking. She says, “Be careful of what you get yourself into, and be wise enough not to live according to people’s expectations of your life style. It is your life! Own it responsibly and be SMART” (64). I want to end this section with an extract from Elethu Ntsethe’s essay that says it all: “Woman, you are enough. Woman, you are capable. Woman, you are special” (56).
As we know, the issue of sexual violence is a global phenomenon. Researchers, social justice activists, and other concerned individuals work tirelessly to challenge and prevent sexual violence and gender-based violence against women and children. I want to say something about my own research as a way of underscoring the significance of having material like 14 Times a Woman for use in South African classrooms. My recently completed doctoral work seeks to challenge prevalent patriarchal attitudes towards and beliefs about sexual violence and gender-based violence against women and children. Further, it seeks to change perceptions about these issues, especially those of teenage boys and girls. The issues raised in the autobiographical essays by these young women on the prevention of sexual violence against women link to some of the issues I wrote about in my dissertation. As part of my field work I discussed issues with girls and boys at secondary school such as “no means no” and we interrogated the notion that “girls’ revealing clothes are an invitation to rape.” We looked at beliefs like “physical abuse is an expression of love.” We considered topics like domestic violence and so-called corrective rape. I sought to change the perceptions of these secondary school learners (as they are known in South Africa) about girls, women, and sexual violence.
One of the essays in this collection touched on the issue of “no meaning yes” to Thina Kamnqa’s boyfriend who coerced her into having sex even though she had indicated that she was not yet ready to do so. “I told him to wait until I was ready because I was not really ready for such a thing. He refused and locked the door, hiding the key. So we did it, he broke my virginity” (24). In my doctoral research I was interested in looking at how young people, just a little younger than the contributors to 14 Times a Woman, see issues of gender and sexuality. One of the texts I used in my study was the South African film, Yesterday (Roodt 2004) that looks at the harsh social realities of violence against women. The film depicts a rural black woman who becomes infected with HIV and it describes her struggles as a woman, as a mother and as a wife of the migrant laborer who infected her. The film offers a socio-cultural, political, and pedagogical opportunity for different audiences to address issues of gender, sexuality, and gender-based violence at school and in the broader society. As I pointed out elsewhere, (Ngcobo 2015), Yesterday became a crucial tool for me “in the context of the need for interventions that challenge the attitudes that reproduce cultures of violence, particularly in the classroom” (33). My main objective in using the film was to challenge learners’ perceptions, attitudes, and beliefs on how they perceive men and women and how gender is socially constructed. Learners viewed film clips which depicted different forms of violence and this was followed by teacher-led discussions. In the discussions learners talked about the violence as represented in the film and in society in general. In this way, they were being sensitized and challenged to think differently about men and women and gender power relations. In the class discussions, the learners openly expressed their views on issues of violence and this provided insight into cultural norms on, and collective beliefs about, critical issues such as gender-based violence, sexual violence, and gender inequality. Learners raised the issue of the cultural tolerance of interpersonal violence and the physical chastisement of women as real social problems that affect the well-being of many women in society. This kind of behaviour is depicted in the film Yesterday. Learners commented that people in society tend to distance themselves from such incidents and the perpetrators are not condemned for their actions.
Going back to 14 Times a Woman, I want to say how much I think it adds to the body of published work on the issues of gender violence and sexual violence against girls and women in South Africa. This collection of essays would be very useful in South African classrooms as a way of illuminating the vital need for critical and active engagement in challenging dominant beliefs related to the acceptability of gender-based violence, sexual violence, and gender inequality.
NgcoboN. 2015. “The Use of Film as an Intervention in Addressing Gender Violence: Experiences in a South African Secondary School.” Agenda 29 no. 532–41.
NgcoboN. 2016. Adolescent Readers’ Responses to Gender Representation in an isiZulu Text Dealing with HIV and AIDS: A Case Study in a Secondary School in KwaZulu-Natal Province. PhD diss. University of KwaZulu-Natal.