Celebrating courageous women

Published Aug 1, 2023


Cathy Achilles

Women should be acknowledged for their contribution to society, not only on Women’s Day but throughout the year and in history books.

Lydia Williams is one of the women who inspire me. She was born into slavery. After she had given birth at the age of 13, her son was taken from her and sold into slavery. Following the emancipation of the slaves in 1838, she moved to District Six.

On Emancipation Day, December 1 each year, she would bake cakes and share stories of her experiences of slavery, with the children in the neighbourhood. She was affectionately known as Tant Tameletjie. With a body that bore the scars of lashing in slavery, she started a school in her home. Later, she helped build a school in District Six. Amid her own trauma, she invested in the lives of others.

Without women, the fire of liberation in our country would have been extinguished.

In 1913, women led a resistance campaign against the pass laws in the Orange Free State. The Bantu Women’s League, under the leadership of its first president Charlotte Makgomo Maxeke, fought against the pass laws on January 7, 1919. The BWL was the predecessor of the ANC Women’s League. Maxeke was one of South Africa’s first black female graduates. She received her BSc degree at Wilberforce University in Cleveland, Ohio, US.

On August 9, 1956, 20 000 women marched to the Union Buildings in protest of the oppressive laws of the apartheid government. We tend to romanticise the event and not realise that women risked their lives. They could have been killed or put in prison. Women like Dulcie September lost their lives in the liberation Struggle. Many are not recorded in the history book,s such as Winnie Nomzamo Madikizela Mandela. When she died, the hashtag on social media was #shemultiplied.

A few months later, on August 1, 2018, thousands of women dressed in black and red marched to Parliament and the union building to protest against gender-based violence and femicide. Their relentless pursuit of justice was the catalyst for tabling the National Strategic Plan on Gender-based Violence and Femicide.

It is mind-numbing that Police Minister Bheki Cele reported in his 2022/2023 third quarter crime statistics that 5 935 rapes took place in the residence of the perpetrator or victim. Recently, 14-year-old Neema Marshall, from Mitchells Plain, was killed, allegedly by a 15-year-old boy because she refuse to date him. Even though the National Strategic Plan might be hard to implement, we should not give up on it. The responsibility of implementing it lies with the government and civil society.

While I was homeless, living in the Stellenbosch night shelter in 2020, I met Thandeka (not her real name). She and her second husband became homeless after he lost his job. He is originally from Limpopo. They could not go to his family due to a lack of money and the Covid-19 travel restrictions.

When she was young, her mother arranged a forced marriage to a stranger who abused her. She suffered genital mutilation.

She fled to Cape Town, where life was just as hard for her. At home, she witnessed her father abusing her mother, and while trying to protect her mother, she killed him. She spent a few years in prison. She was ostracised by her mother and could not move back home. Thandeka eventually rebuilt her life and met her husband.

When I joined the U-turn Homeless Ministries and moved out of the night shelter, I lost contact with her.

Many women living on the streets or in shelters have similar stories as Thandeka’s. For some, it was running away from the realities of gender-based violence (GBV) at home. They found comfort in drugs and ended up living on the streets. Where the cycle of abuse continued.

It is hard to break out of the web of homelessness. When you are in it, it might feel as if there is no way out. Being a U-turn graduate, I can attest that it empowers people with skills to overcome homelessness.

U-turn has a transitional house for their female Champions, as their clients are known on their Phase 3 Work-readiness programme. In the house, a safe home environment is created for them to grow and focus on their recovery from drug abuse. They are courageous women, like the women who marched on August 9, 1956. They had to break the oppressive grip of homelessness and drug abuse.

Through its therapeutic team, U-turn is implementing the pillars of the GBV Strategic Plan by creating an environment of healing and care for their Champions. “Strengthened existing response, care and support services by the state and civil society in ways that are victim-centred and survivor-focused to facilitate recovery and healing”, is mentioned in pillar four. The Champions have a case worker who is either a social worker or an occupational therapist. They have access to a counsellor.

Like Lydia Williams, Champions bear the scars of their past but carry the flame of liberation on their own lives.

Cathy Achilles is the online media co-ordinator and spokesperson at U-turn Homeless Ministries

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