Stories for change: digital storytelling and collective action to end sexual and gender-based violence in South Africa

This case study explores the value and limitations of collective action in challenging the community, political, social and economic institutions that reinforce harmful gender norms related to sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). A digital storytelling process formed the heart of the case study. Through this process, 11 people from informal settlements and townships in Cape Town created and shared stories about the actions they are taking to address sexual and gender-based violence in their lives and in their communities. By grounding the research process in the community activists' realities, the methodology gives weight to the knowledge and understanding of those people who have experienced violence, and who are finding ways to address this violence through their activism. The digital stories, then, are part of the change. Not only do they make visible experiences of violence that are so frequently kept hidden, but they also highlight the work of those very people acting to create change, and whose voices are not often heard or prioritised in decision-making on SGBV.

Vee’s story

Vee is a gender and sexual rights activist and a keen photographer who lives in Cape Town. In her activism she provides support to people who experience discrimination because of their sexuality and gender identity. Vee campaigns with the organisation Free Gender for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Intersex and Queer rights.

In her digital story, Vee shares her personal journey of coming out to her family as a lesbian, and the pain and sadness felt in her mother’s rejection. Vee’s story emphasises that our most immediate relationships are an important part of how and why we engage in processes of social change.

Vee shows how she is overcoming feelings of isolation and hurt by building and deepening meaningful relationships, in her new home with her grandmother and in her new community. Working with other activists, she has found solidarity with others that share her commitment to social and gender justice. These social and political relationships are supporting her to take action within a wider social and political context and to transform the situations of others

Sinazo’s story

Sinazo is from Cape Town. She is a poet and an artist, working creatively to support herself and others to express the issues around gender violence, and her aspirations for gender justice in South Africa.

In her story, Sinazo shares how poverty, violence and injustice have entered her life in complex and intersecting ways. A series of violent attacks against her family meant that she lost her mother at a young age; and when her father passed away, Sinazo found herself faced with the challenge of surviving, while completing her education with limited social and state support.

Sinazo’s story helps us to understand the power within that she and many activists hold in the face of ongoing insecurity and uncertainty. Her story expresses the importance of those people who act as mentors in helping to provide this strength – memory of her mother influenced her choice to become a role model to young girls and avoid negative peer pressure. Being a part of social justice organisations and networks further supported her life choices and helped grow the skills that have enabled her to take action towards her vision: that all people should live free from violence, to be able to ‘rise above’.

Sharing stories and listening for a change

In October 2014 activists involved in this process shared their digital stories and an analysis of power and social change that they had layered onto their stories with over 30 stakeholders at a policy dialogue event held in Khayelitsha, Cape Town. Through sharing their experiences, the activists enabled stakeholders at the policy dialogue event to engage with the lived reality of violence and the emotions of pain and hope that come with this.

Responses from participants at the dialogue event emphasised the importance of personal and contextualised stories such as these in providing a map for people working in the policy and programming arena to understand the issues; and that in raising social problems from their point of view, activists become agents in both research processes such as this, and in terms of wider social change and policy advocacy. This is of particular importance in the development of a National Strategic Plan on Gender-Based Violence which aims to fill the existing gaps in: laws and policies; services for survivors of SGBV; funding for strategies that prevent violence and oversight and impact mechanisms.

What is digital storytelling?

Digital storytelling is a learning, creating and sharing experience supported by technology, allowing participants to share aspects of their life story through the creation of their own short digital media production. It is an approach that combines a participatory, collaborative methodology with the creative use of technology to generate stories aimed at catalysing action on pressing social issues. For information on the approach to digital storytelling used in this research please visit www.transformativestory.org or contact Joanna Wheeler, Gill Black or Thea Shahrokh.