Human Rights Activist Brings Hope After Tragedy As New Shelter for Women Opens in Kwa Zulu Natal
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 Kwa 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 the 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.”