Lucinda Evansis a renowned South African activist, one of the visible faces of the struggle against male violence that impacts the lives of women, children and LGTBIQ+ people. From Lavender Hill, a community formed on the outskirts of Cape Town during apartheid as a result of segregation, she works insistently to assert the human rights of the people around her.
In 2008, she set up Philisa Abafazi Bethu (PAB, Healing Our Women), a non-profit organisation that promotes the empowerment of women and the protection of children and young people. To improve the situation in which the women of Lavender Hill live, PAB runs training programmes and support groups, and offers accompaniment to women who decide to take legal action against their aggressors. Since 2012, the organisation has run emergency shelters for women who have suffered gender-based violence. With regard to the welfare of children and young people, PAB promotes educational, sports and community action programmes. The organisation has also set up a baby protection mechanism, a device where people who cannot take care of a baby can leave the child safely. In addition, the organisation has a child rescue and investigation team, named after Rene Roman, a 13-year-old girl from Lavender Hill who was abducted, raped and murdered in 2017.
This team is made up of people who know the area very well and who have the necessary training to conduct a systematic investigation when a child is reported missing. Finally, Evans has also been involved in a number of initiatives to end youth gun violence.
The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 was a game changer for Evans and Philisa Abafazi Bethu. Vulnerable communities in Lavender Hill were plunged into abject poverty. “In South Africa we had over 700 days of strict confinement and the only way we could help the communities was to offer food. Eating well brings peace to the home”, she explains. “We were cooking six days a week, about 4,500 meals a day, with hardly any money. Help, she says, came from abroad: Lucinda Evans mobilised people who had worked with her at one time or another and asked them for financial support to set up meals for the community. On 24 March 2020, food began to be distributed. It was always clear to her: people in Lavender Hill would not die of COVID, but of starvation.
Despite the willingness of the volunteers and the firm conviction to try to help those who were having a hard time, Lucinda Evans and her team did not have it easy: one day they tried to burn down her house to steal the food she kept in it for the meals she was preparing. They had to find a place to hide the food. The local authorities were hardly helpful either. “They haven’t wanted to cooperate with me for years”, she admits.
Lucinda Evans is one of the leaders of the #AmINext movement, a broad protest against male violence that was sparked by the murder of the young student Uyinene Mrwetyanain August 2019. At the time, and outside the South African Parliament, Evans called on the government to take strong action for the protection of women, girls and LGTBIQ+ people. “As a country, we are in crisis”, she said. Weeks later, the BBC included her in its list of the 100 most influential and inspirational women in the world.
She is also the South African coordinator of the international One Billion Rising campaign,which highlights the persistence and extent of violence against women, girls and LGTBIQ+ people around the world. In South Africa, one in five women in a relationship has experienced physical violence from a partner; this is 21% of women. Six per cent of women report experiencing sexual violence from their partners. The prevalence of physical violence against women remains higher among less educated women. One fact: during the pandemic in South Africa, the national counselling hotline called Lifeline SA documented a 500% increase in the number of calls about gender-based violence within 2 hours of the start of the lockdown.
What made you become an activist?
I joined the Red Cross Society when I was 12 years old and since then I have always been involved in social issues. I remember there were few health clinics where I lived and I didn’t like to see people dying. At that time there was violence on the streets; I ended up taking injured people to my mother’s house.
What does Lavender Hill tell us about the legacy of apartheid?
To a large extent, we still live in the apartheid-era houses, whose duplex flats have not been renovated in the more than 50-year history of the community. Families have grown up and started to live in the backyards of the houses as well. Three informal settlements have been established in the last 15 years. Apartheid marginalised us, and sadly we have inherited violence that, since the advent of democracy, continues to damage the beloved communities I work with. Apartheid took our history, culture and even language. Now, our communities must confront violence.
How did you decide to start Philisa Abafazi Bethu (PAB)?
I started PAB from my garage on 24 August after witnessing a man attacking his partner. When I stopped the fight, she was bleeding profusely. I asked him if he would have wanted this for his mother, daughter or sister. Then, the assaulted woman responded and told me that it was none of my business. I decided to make it my business and started the project from my home, which became a care and counselling office, a hiding place, a place where women turned to when they were about to be killed. We had unknown women sleeping on the floor of our dining room or in the 3 x 12 metre wooden house at the back of our house. We saved many lives and also accompanied many births in our house.
You have been one of the leading voices of the #AmINext movement. Do you think this protest will bring about change in the near future?
It is a movement that has generated a collective call for us, the women of South Africa, to raise our voices against the scourge of violence perpetrated against our bodies and those of our children, as well as against gender-diverse and LGTBIQ+ people. Politically, however, nothing has changed. Women and children are still being killed, and what the government has done -including the president’s speech on 5 September- has meant nothing to us.
Change will come when women affected by all these forms of violence intensify our activism.
However, the huge division among us is still one of the main obstacles in our movement for the safety and protection of women in the country. We have the feeling that patriarchal behaviour also wears a skirt in Parliament.
You are, according to the BBC, one of the 100 most influential and inspirational women in the world.
It was unexpected for a woman from a township, which is also labelled as violent, to receive recognition like this. I hope it will help me inspire young people every day, because it shows that your circumstances don’t determine what you can do to give hope to other people.
You coordinate the international One Billion Rising campaign in South Africa. Why are international networks important in the fight against gender-based violence?
One Billion Rising has been and still is a source of support and solidarity. When I raised my voice in the #AmINext campaign, any possible help, support or funding vanished. All doors were immediately closed to me, my work and the people I work for. Criticising the government and our president for not adequately addressing the ongoing killing of women and girls put me in total isolation. I stopped being invited to strategic spaces for participation, and invitations I had already received were cancelled.
International support, having global eyes looking at what is happening in South Africa, has helped us. Personally, as a small-scale advocate, I have been able to learn from the resilience of other activists. I have also had the chance to cry and let go, in a completely honest way, through video calls. I have shed tears of frustration, every time I arrive at the scene of another murder, that I realise the doors are closing because of my activism, that I want to send the patriarchal system that murders us, rapes us and fails to protect us to hell.
Do you think there is a possibility for change in the narratives around gender-based violence?
The narrative in the country has not changed because there is neither equality nor equity here. The patriarchal narratives are still in place in the country and the government doesn’t matter. What has changed is our narrative: we have to work with young people and men. That is why we are expanding our services in this direction. For example, we help young people find jobs, because we understand that it can be beneficial in combating violence. We also have a door-to-door programme to encourage study. In November 2021, for example, we will open the first safehouse for male victims of gender-based violence, who also exist. It’s true that so far we haven’t had any users, but we have had calls. Here, when men go to the police, they are questioned about their strength and labelled as “weak” men.
How did the outbreak of the pandemic affect the Lavender Hill community?
The situation got much worse, for various reasons. Alcohol was banned here and this created a lot of frustration among the perpetrators. Our emergency houses were full: the community was looking for help and support. Food insecurity started to mix with gender-based violence. Many of the people who lost their jobs then have still not recovered, nor has much of the industry. The tourism sector was also badly hit and this affected domestic workers, hotel workers, etc. The humanitarian impact has been incalculable.
And how did civil society work during the confinement?
In South Africa, the curfew was from 20:00 in the evening. I got special permission from the local government to distribute food after 20:30. We did it with volunteers and with police protection. In November 2020 we moved to new premises, with hardly any electricity or anything else. We used generators. As we had no running water, we got Coca-Cola to give us 1,000 litres of water every week for cooking.