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Lawyers against Abuse: Sexual Violence Workshop Series

Lawyers against Abuse (LvA) is a non-profit organisation that provides free legal services and psychosocial support for victims of domestic violence and sexual violence in Diepsloot, an informal settlement of approximately 500,000 people located north of Johannesburg. It is committed to using an integrated approach, built on a deep understanding of the social context and psychological aspects of violence. its work can be divided into the following four key project areas: direct legal services in the form of protection order applications and support in criminal cases of sexual violence and assault in domestic violence contexts; psychosocial support in the form of individual and group therapy; state actor engagement around building capacity and ensuring accurate application of the law and dignified treatment of victims; and community engagement in the form of conscientisation and empowerment workshops.

In 2014, LvA noticed a distinct lack of reported cases of sexual violence. This was in spite of our clients mentioning incidents of sexual violence or rape several times in the course of our work with them. Engagement with our partner organisations and community stakeholders suggested that this was the case because sexual violence had become normalised in Diepsloot. We developed the sexual violence workshop series in early 2015 in an attempt to disrupt this tendency – we want to de-normalise sexual violence through rendering its structural determinants visible. In the world of gender-based violence work, our approach stands out mainly because of the way we think about empowerment. For us, empowerment is not a feel-good process that allows women to merely cope in a world that is structurally rigged against them. Instead, we view empowerment as a process of first laying bare and then engaging with the material and discursive realities that shape and normalise sexual violence in the first place.

The workshop series aims to render visible the structural elements of the oppression of women. In the context of Diepsloot, this means destabilising accepted gender norms and stereotypes that place women in a position of disempowerment. Many women in Diepsloot are expected to stay at home and take care of the children, for example, and it is acceptable for men in Diepsloot to spend their income on alcohol and gambling. This leaves women with little to no control over household income, and many of our clients struggle to feed their children and pay nominal household expenses because of this issue. At the same time, women who are forced to stay at home and not earn their own income remain at the mercy of their husbands and have very few options that will let them escape from their horrible situations.

The workshop series takes place over four days and consists of the following four workshops:

  • The Politics of Violence
  • The Psychology of Violence
  • Navigating the Justice System
  • Bodymapping: Finding the personal in the political

By the end of the first session, participants should be able to articulate the systemic injustices suffered by women using a feminist lens and to understand the oppressive nature of patriarchy and patriarchal systems and institutions. In the second session, the organisation unpacks the psychology of violence – why do certain people become violent, and why are certain people more likely to become victims of violence? This is done by unpacking gender roles and stereotypes, and conceptualising gender-based violence as a cycle with distinct elements that repeat themselves. In the third session, the aim is to render the justice system more legible by explaining the differences between civil and criminal cases, and walking participants through the protection order process, as well as the procedure for reporting and prosecuting cases of sexual violence. The fourth session takes participants on an introspective bodymapping process, facilitating a consolidation of knowledge gained in previous sessions, on a personal level. It also allows participants to share some of their stories – an important part of the process of emotional healing.

In 2015, LvA facilitated two iterations of the series with a total of 25 participants. Post-series evaluations indicated that the participants were able to inhabit and articulate various discursive positions with regards to gender-based violence in their daily lives. Here are what some participants said:

“Society has its own norms and perspectives that affect gender roles and we don’t have to accept it. We can change it.”

“I learned that if you are in a position of powerlessness you don’t have to remain there. You can pick yourself up.”

“It was hard, but it helped me a lot. I can put the pieces of me back together again.”

LvA has continued to run this workshop series in 2016 and is continuously adjusting the material based on valuable feedback from series graduates as well as LvA’s own learnings about the context.


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