Human Rights Activist Brings Hope After Tragedy As New Shelter for Women Opens in Kwa Zulu Natal. 17/52016

Published by GEORGIAHANIAS

The South African village of Gcilima is nearly impossible to find
without local help. Located three hours from Durban and 30 km south of
Port Shepstone, it is a place deep in the countryside of Zwa Zulu Natal
province, and one that even TomTom can’t track down.  You drive along a
ribbon of paved and dusty red earth roads to get there, occasionally
asking for directions to a place that nobody’s heard of because you
aren’t pronouncing it properly, all the time passing children and
teenagers that are eager to smile and wave to you.

When you do find it you are struck by beauty of the place. Gcilima is
surrounded by lush rolling hills that would be perfect for skiing – if
there was ever any snow.

It is here that we meet Busisiwe Nkonyeni, women’s rights activist
and manager of Hanne’s Shelter, a refuge for battered women opening this
week– and the only one of its kind in this entire district. The shelter
took years to complete, despite the urgent need to address the
staggering problem of violence against women in the area – and the
country as a whole.

The 51-year-old activist has come into the role thanks to her
experience as the founder of an organisation called Siyamthanda, which
means we love you in Zulu.  Its purpose is to support unity within
communities and families in the districts – particularly women and
children.

Siyamthanka began at the grassroots level in 2003 when Busisiwe
decided to galvanise a group of 30 volunteers from the community to
reach out to women in need in the district.

“I knew women were suffering,” explained Busisiwe, who likes to be
called Boussie. “I wanted to do something for them – help in a way that I
could to make their lives better.”  She insists the government wasn’t
reaching these communities and that solutions would have to come from
the community.

Along with volunteers Boussie would go knocking door to door in the
village like Avon ladies, greeting women and asking them if they needed
help.  On these home visits, one thing was clear- many were being raped
and abused by their husbands and stigmatised by their families for
having HIV- an epidemic that continues to blight poor communities in
South Africa.

“So many women were victims of violence, but they had nowhere to
turn,” said Boussie. “The law here protects only the perpetrators. Women
would go to the police and they would take the women back to their
abusers with a peace order. Nobody went to prison and the women just
continued to suffer.”

Dependent on their husbands for money and with nowhere to turn, they
were stuck in a cycle of violence that continued and was passed down to
younger generations.

“I knew these women were not only abused but they were also hungry,
so I’d slip some food in my purse before my visits to give them
something to eat so they could take their anti-retroviral medication.
We’d help with other things too, like sharing health information,
assisting in grant applications and documents such as birth
certificates, but this wasn’t enough. These women would die by abuse if
we didn’t help them.”

Boussie blames the high levels of violence on the history of the
area.  Conflict erupted between political supporters in the 80s, which
exposed the community to unprecedented violence, leaving people
traumatised for many years after.

“I think it made many people crazy and they couldn’t cope. They fell
behind, they got poorer, men drank and took drugs and they started
abusing their women. It hasn’t stopped.”

There were no shelters in the district to refer the victims to, which
made the problem impossible to solve.  Boussie decided to take action.
“I couldn’t sit and do nothing. Helping others is in my nature so I
pushed and pushed for change with the other volunteers.”

She began raising the plight of the district’s women among government
and police officials as well as other grassroots organisations, notably
the Network Action Group, which united forces to press on for an
opening of a refuge for abused women.  Her voice was being heard and
plans to build a center in South KwaZulu Natal were developed in 2005—
but the project struggled to raise the funding to build the home.

“I prayed and never lost hope for the shelter, but we were very
desperate. Where would we find the money? We needed to help our women.”

12 years later- the prayers were heard and the hard lobbying paid off
– but at a very high price.  Funding for the shelter came after a
violent tragedy took the life of a young woman named Hanne, who was
murdered thousands of miles away in the capital of Norway.

On July 23, 2011, Hanne Løvlie, aged 30, was killed
in Oslo when Anders Breivik detonated a bomb in the city centre, taking
her life along with 7 other people. He then travelled to a small island
40 minutes away called Utoya and executed 69 members of the Labour youth
camp. It is the worst mass murder outside of war in history.

Hanne was survived by her father Olav Løvlie- a retired teacher and
school consultant; her mother Kirsti, also a retired teacher; and her
brother Jorgen, an engineer.

The family got compensation from the Norwegian state and through
additional money raised by community and friends they decided to do
something in memory of Hanne.

The Løvlies contacted a Norwegian charity called
Impande with a wish to build a shelter in South Africa and to fulfill
Hanne’s dream to help the women there. Hanne spent time as a student in
Durban, at the University of KwaZulu Natal, where she was an outgoing
and politically engaged student.  During her studies she became aware of
the problem of violence against women in South Africa and spoke often
of her wish to do something about this issue.

Impande works with grassroots community initiatives to build crèches
and development centres for children, women and society’s most
vulnerable in KwaZulu Natal.  They were also connected with the Network
Action Group, which knew of the shelter that Boussie’s team and women of
the district were trying to build.

Hanne’s shelter is built inside Chief Inkosi M.W.Xolo’s tribal land
area. His chiefdom has 53000 inhabitants and as the protector of this
tribal land Xolo he played a big role in helping to build the shelter
and was impressed by the work that Siyamthanda and the other charities
were doing to help women.

Another important catalyst for the creation of the centre is the
Madikiza family, who donated the land and their childhood home, which
was abandoned for safety fears during the violent troubles in the 80s.
The father of the Madikiza family wanted to house to be put to good use
for the community one day, and Hanne’s shelter was a noble project. It
forms one of the shelter’s three houses.

“We are all marked by violence in this spot,” Boussie said “the
Løvlie family, the Madikiza family and the women too. But we are making a
place of peace here. Good has come out of the suffering.”

Hanne’s shelter is one of the first social institutions of this type
set up inside South Africa. It offers trauma-counselling, skills
training and refuge for 27 people for up to a six-month period.

The official ribbon cutting for the shelter was witnessed by locals
and government officials from South Africa, as well as the Løvlie
family, their friends and high profile Norwegians including the director
of the Nobel Peace institute.  It was a respectful occasion, full of
promise and compassion.

 

“Such places shouldn’t ever have to exist, but they do here. We can’t
stop the violence but hopefully we can save some women and children by
not only giving them shelter but also counselling and skills to make
them realise they can do things on their own.  We want to give them the
power to leave the abuse and stand on their own feet.”