When *Amanda looks around the community she grew up in, she does not see progress; instead, she sees high unemployment, teenage pregnancy, crime and many young women living in social isolation. Amanda is a 25-year-old woman from an informal settlement in South Africa. There are little to no employment opportunities in the community she lives in, or resources that could help her progress in life, which makes her feel, discouraged. The average past month earnings in the community where she lives are R169 (approx. 12 USD). Amanda describes herself as a person who is quiet, without any confidence and with a fear of doing anything wrong. She says this has made her vulnerable to many things growing up such as, having abusive and controlling boyfriends who offered her financial support on condition that she never challenged them. For Amanda, she was taught, from an early age that men are to be respected and feared and that they were the head of the family. Even if there were aspects in her relationship that she was not happy with, she held on to the belief that the man is God to you and you should never disagree with him.
“I used to be scared speaking openly to my boyfriend, I was scared he would get violent if I said anything so I ended up never telling him anything if I was upset.”
Behind closed doors, women and children living in informal settlements experience extreme levels of violence. Bruises, scars, emotional trauma and fear are part of the daily life experience for most women living in such settings in South Africa – violence experienced at the hands of their partners, husbands and other community members. Research conducted in the Stepping Stones and Creating Futures intervention, funded by the What Works to Prevent Violence Against Women and Girls Global Programme, found that 71% of women recruited into a gender based violence prevention programme had experienced physical or sexual violence from a partner (Gibbs et al., 2017), and those women who dare to speak out about this violence describe a life of constant fear and shame. Baseline research revealed extremely high levels of past year physical intimate partner violence experienced by women (59.6%). In addition, almost one third of women (29.4%) report experiencing sexual violence and 65% report having experienced physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence in the same period.
Neighbours look the other way when they hear women screaming for help, they prefer not to ‘get involved’ with other people’s relationships. The result is that people do not support each other, and women experiencing violence become increasingly isolated from other women in the community. The baseline research found that 45.3% of women reported experiencing depressive symptoms (Gibbs, 2017). When women tell their families about the level of abuse they suffer in their relationships, they are told simply that that is how relationships are, that relationships require patience. Violence is normalised. It is not considered abuse, but merely “challenges” of a relationship. After all, if you are in a relationship, you are better off than women who do not have a man. If the police are called to a domestic dispute, they most often do not take the complaint at all seriously and neither do they respond with any urgency.
Amanda says “I felt constantly anxious in my community and that feeling was made worse in my own home when I was violated by the person I loved the most, my boyfriend. Everybody had an opinion about my life except me, I had no voice.”
However, that changed when Amanda joined the Stepping Stones and Creating Futures intervention implemented by Project Empower, a women’s rights NGO based in Durban South Africa.
“Before Stepping Stones Creating Futures, the things I did in my relationship were things which I had grown up seeing and I thought were right and that is how you were expected to behave in a relationship. But since I started the groups, I know better. I am not scared to share my feelings with my partner anymore. Stepping Stones encouraged us to stand up for ourselves.”
The Stepping Stones and Creating Futures intervention seeks to change gender norms and power imbalances while strengthening livelihoods in urban informal settlements in eThekwini, South Africa. It aims to reduce gender-based violence and HIV transmission, promote the psychological well-being of youth, and strengthen livelihood strategies. Stepping Stones developed as a community wide HIV prevention intervention in the 1990s in Uganda by Alice Welbourn, recognises that violence against women and HIV-acquisition is fundamentally driven by gender inequalities – that is the unequal power that men have over women. Stepping Stones aims to support participants to reflect on the nature of this power and work to transform this in efforts to reduce violence. Additionally, the Creating Futures component uses participatory activities to encourage young people to reflect on, and improve their livelihood strategies. The Stepping Stones and Creating Futures intervention is currently being evaluated as part of the What Works to Prevent Violence against Women and Girls Global Programme, funded by UKAID.
For Amanda, participating in the Stepping Stones Creating Futures learning groups helped her become more independent from her partner and she is now focused on putting herself first and looking for a job. She and her partner can now communicate more openly with one another and she is no longer living in constant fear of him losing his temper when having conversations with him.
In the Stepping Stones and Creating Futures intervention women report that the intervention has made important and positive changes to their lives. From being women who were in a state of helplessness, women are slowly starting to find their voices and stand up against the violence from men The learning groups organised by the intervention provide a platform where the women can share their stories, learn from each other by and offer each other support, helping to break isolation and enabling women to take back control over their lives. Women are now more assertive in their lives and relationships. It is a slow and gradual process but the first steps have been taken.