By Chris/tine McLachlan
As a psychologist working in this field I have seen first-hand how rape, sexual assault, hate crimes and other gender-based violence against womxn (GBVAW) completely change a person’s life. I see the re-traumatisation, even as the person goes through the healing process, and how they often experience a profound loss of control. I witness the pain, the anguish, the anger.
However, those who survive the turmoil often become more resilient. They find their inner strength – this is often all that is left. Survivors find their strength as they slowly pick themselves up and start moving forward, finding their voice in the process. Beyond the mainstream, the recent #TotalShutDown was also a testimony of the resilience of womxn and gender non-conforming people (GNC) people as they marched on the streets. It spoke of their unbreakable spirit as they faced their fears and even navigated the triggers that arose in the process. They held hands, bound by the quest to break the silence, to end GBV.
On 1 August 2018, Wednesday, South Africa saw womxn (transgender and cisgender) and gender non-conforming (GNC) people marching together. South Africa was mesmerized by the womxn and GNC people singing together, waving flags and banners and wearing black with a bit of red. The cameras gazed upon people who were breaking down, their tears running freely as they recalled the violations that they suffered and the flashbacks of witnessing their children, mothers, siblings, and friends suffering at the hands of (mostly) cisgender men.
As a small group of womxn and GNC people waited at the Union buildings in Pretoria for President Cyril Ramaphosa, they were feeling scared and vulnerable. They were afraid of arrest, they felt trapped, some felt traumatised. They waited until the President arrived. He gave them an opportunity to speak and then listened intently to the document and its 24 demands. These demands include:
Demand 1: A strong message from the office of the President that gender-based violence against womxn, GBVAW, is pervasive and widespread and that it cannot be tolerated at any level of society. This includes a commitment never to appoint any individual who has been implicated or minimises the causes and consequences of GBVAW to cabinet or to lead a state institution. Further, a commitment to establish and drive a multi-stakeholder and comprehensive process to address and reduce GBVAW and a commitment to announce the dates of a national gender summit before 30 August 2018
Demand 24: Transgender and GNC people have different safety and security needs than that of cisgender womxn based on how laws, policies, practices and systems are conceptualised, based on gender binaries for cisgender womxn and men, as well as for boys and girls. E.g. Transgender womxn and GNC people are raped in correctional facilities and detention centres in the criminal justice system by virtue of their legal gender marker. In combating GBV comprehensively, government should ensure that laws, policies, practices and systems are sensitive to gender diversity to protect the bodily, physical, and psychological and emotional integrity of transgender and GNC people from GBV. To secure this object, government should focus on reviewing and amending gender recognition laws, pass the Combating and Prevention of Hate Crimes Bill, pass the Draft Social Inclusion Policy for Higher Education Institutions and finalise the Comprehensive Sexuality Education Plan, which all recognise transgender and gender non-conforming people and the challenges these demographics face aligned to combating and preventing GBV
The demands asked for action to be taken against GBV that has taken over a country that many of us call home. GBV is one of the features of patriarchal, male, cisgender, heterosexual rule, where the worth of womxn and GNC people are devalued and wherein power and control is placed within a small group of people who dominate society. GBV does not only cause physical pain and violation, it affects the victim/survivor on an emotional level when Post Traumatic Stress disorder (PTSD) sets in. It often leads to depression, anxiety and even suicidality. It spreads across communities. GBV affects the family members, the children, the parents, the friends, and the colleagues. It traumatises people on multiple levels that can lead to other health issues. It even has an economic impact.
In the aftermath of the #TotalShutDown, some reached out to me for support. As mental health professionals some of us could respond by listening and supporting the womxn and GNC people that felt retraumatised. For many, by walking, by engaging, by being out there, the emotions that they tried to ignore and repress burst open. As people were elated about the overwhelming success of the march, the pent-up emotions started streaming out.
As South Africans, how can we keep on ignoring the plight of the victims and the survivors of GBV? How can we, as psychology professionals, offer our services and our expertise to a nation filled with millions that have suffered?
For once, we saw transgender and cisgender womxn as well as GNC people holding hands, marching in strength. The experiences they had, the suffering they endured, the darkness of trauma they faced, made them one in spirit. No race, no skin colour, no political affiliation, no religion, no sexuality, no class were centralised. These people had one thing in common: the quest to stand up against GBV. Are we going to forget so soon? What will our reaction be? Or will we be silenced by the horror of what is really happening in our country?
Chris/tine McLachlan is a clinical psychologist in a public hospital / Thuthuzela care centre and a PhD candidate at UNISA. Chris chairs the Board of Gender DynamiX, is a member of the management committee of the Psychological Society of South Africa’s Sexuality and Gender Division and an ordained minister in the Reforming Church.