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Stepping away from the silence

'I am more empowered – a beautiful woman.' The unbelievably simple idea from South Africa that has just netted Tearfund an award.

By Ben Cohen | 14 Jun 2018

A group of Phephisa women

Tearfund has won in the ‘International aid and development’ category at the 2018 Charity Awards. We received the award for our work with survivors of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) in South Africa.       

The Phephisa project is based in KwaZulu-Natal. This is a deeply unequal and violent region, where nearly half of men admit to perpetrating gender-based violence. The project has been built around what survivors themselves have identified as their own priorities. Women survivors said they wanted to have a ‘safe space’ where they can meet, reflect on their experiences and start the healing process together.          

These safe spaces, often church buildings, give women a place to share their stories with others who have faced a similar ordeal. The leaders of these groups also speak out publicly on the issue, pushing for social and political change.           

The project has been running for just over three years. It currently supports 547 survivors. Some 90 per cent of the women said they had spoken out for the first time about their experiences thanks to this work.

Phephisa women release balloons

Clockwise: Pehphisa group in celebration mode, Esperande, a Phephisa meeting.

Passing the baton        

Although it was initiated by Tearfund, Phephisa is now entirely locally-owned and run. Any such project with Tearfund support, needs to be locally developed, owned and sustainable – in keeping with our aim to empower communities rather than foster continued dependence.       

Tearfund is working to encourage more projects like Phephisa, elsewhere in Africa – giving more women the chance to heal, move out of the shadows and speak out. Women like Esperande...       

‘A beautiful woman’ – Esperande’s story       

‘I’m Esperande, originally from Burundi. I’m now living in South Africa.       

‘In 1993, when the civil war was rough in Burundi, I lost my parents and my three siblings, all in a single day when I was just 12 years old.       

‘As a young orphaned girl in such a violent place, I became a victim of sexual abuse myself, and I saw terrible, violent abuse around me. For all my teenage years I lived in fear and suffered from stigma and rejection by members of my extended family because of my abuse.       

‘After high school, I decided the solution to this rejection and hostility was to get married – after all I had endured, I hoped that this would be a place of safety for me. However, after we fled to South Africa as refugees, my marriage turned sour and I started being psychologically abused by my husband. I became depressed and almost died due to high blood pressure, caused by my state of mind.       

‘By the grace of God, I learned about and joined a Phephisa group. The first time I spoke and shared my experiences with the other women, I felt a huge sense of relief pour over me.       

‘I went through a journey of healing within the group and I was equipped with skills to deal with my trauma. Talking to other women who had been through the same experiences was hugely helpful. I also grew in knowledge of my rights as a woman.

Paying it forward      

‘As I began healing, I grew in confidence and found myself able to do all sorts of things I’d previously felt unable to do. I became the support group leader and I went back to university – I had dropped out in order to try and save my marriage. I’m now doing a PhD on the journey of healing taken by survivors of SGBV.      

‘Now, I am more empowered – a beautiful woman. I speak out about sexual violence in my community. I look forward to sharing my knowledge with the whole world!      

‘Nobody should ever fear rejection or stigmatisation because of the wrong done done to them by other people.’     

Esperende’s wish is the wish of Tearfund’s SGBV team too, as they prepare to share this model across Africa, and maybe one day, further afield too. Phephisa is a simple idea, but it’s an effective one, as it draws on the strength and motivation abused women can find. They just need the opportunity to step out of the shadows and find the strength speak for themselves.      

Meet Esperande

A prayer     

God, who gives a voice to the voiceless and a purpose for those who have been abused and stigmatised...     

Please give voice to thousands more women like Esperende and her friends – across Africa and across the world. May their voices – now freed – help to grow freedom, equality and safety for all women in the places they live.

Amen

Written by

Written by Ben Cohen

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