NGO Teaches Boys Empathy To Decrease Violence Against Women

The reality of sexual violence: When Debi Steven was 11 years old, she was raped by a friend’s older brother. For years she never told a soul what had happened to her. The traumatic event was kept a secret, she says, partly because of the immense guilt she felt and partly because she feared that her parents would divorce if they found out what had happened. It wasn’t until Debi was in her late ’20s that she finally confided in her mother. Her mom’s response was that of denial, refusing to believe Debi was telling the truth. It took many more years of self-reflection until Debi felt comfortable enough speaking openly about the rape to family and friends. Today Debi is the founder of Action Breaks Silence, a non-profit charity that runs empowerment programmes for girls and empathy workshops for boys in Soweto and Pretoria West.

There are many walls to coming forward as a victim of rape – and it’s even more daunting when your attacker is someone known to your family. Women and girls all over the world are still blamed for rapes committed against them. They are blamed if they speak out, and they are blamed if they don’t. “The reason so many victims choose to rather keep silent is because speaking up is just the beginning of a long and scary process that can last years. Victims know they’ll be dragged through a trial that’ll impact parents and loved ones, and that they will have to continually retell the horrific event that happened to them. This is why so many women and girls choose silence instead,” says Debi.

“My rapist was roughly 10 years older than me. We were playing hide and seek. I had hidden behind a wall and he’d followed me. He grabbed me from behind and raped me. I don’t remember how long it lasted I just remember wishing it was over,” says Debi. “Just after the event we moved cities from Port Elizabeth to Durban and I didn’t have contact with my friend or her brother – the rapist – anymore. As a young naive girl I chose not to tell my parents. Instead I embraced the chance to reinvent myself now that I was living in a new city and bury what had happened, as if it had never happened.  I always put on a brave front. I excelled at school, I had lots of friends and I seemed a very happy-go-lucky child, even though I was deeply depressed. In my teens I did suffer repetitive nightmares that continued for many years. The nightmare was always the same. I was in my bedroom and trying to find a place to hide away from a group of bad men who were trying to open the windows and door to come in and hurt me. I suffered from anxiety and panic attacks.  To this day I can’t tell you the rapist’s name or any details about him. All I know is that his father worked as a fireman. I was 27 years old when I did finally tell my mother and her initial response was not to believe me.”

Working with many moms of daughters, Debi says she often ask why so many mothers don’t believe their children when they say they’ve been sexually abused or raped. Most say that facing up to the fact that rape happened in their family is difficult because it means they failed as mothers to protect their children. This feeling of failure is made even worse if the rapist is someone who the family knows.

Driven by her belief that all women and girls should be empowered and know how to defend themselves, Debi has built her 25-year career on trying to prevent what happened to her, to happening to others. In July 2013, she founded Action Breaks Silence to offer her training free of charge to women and girls at risk of sexual or gender-based violence. In October 2014, Action Breaks Silence became a UK registered charity. The charity has already taught its ‘Empowerment and Personal Safety’ workshops to over 37,400 women and girls in South Africa, India and the UK and, additionally, piloted Action Breaks Silence’s ground-breaking, preventative ‘Empathy’ workshops for 10 to 13 year old boys. On July 12, 2016, Debi was given a ‘Point of Light’ award by David Cameron, then the Prime Minister of the UK, in recognition of her ‘doing extraordinary things in the service of others … reaching thousands of girls and boys across India and South Africa and spreading the life-saving message of respect and support for women and girls’. In March 2015, Debi was the recipient of an ‘International Women of Change’ award at the Indonesian Film Festival where Power, a documentary about Debi’s life and work by journalist and film-maker Jeanny Gering, was given a Platinum award.

Today  Debbie and her team of volunteers run Action Breaks Silence. The first of its kind in South Africa, the Programme hopes to shatter South Africa’s shameful statistics – a country ranked first for rapes per capita. Rapes are estimated to take place every 19 seconds; a woman/girl is killed by their intimate partner every six hours and it’s estimated that over 40 percent of women in South Africa will be raped in their lifetime.

“Through  interactive activities and discussions we are trying to break down gender stereotypes. In so many communities there is an absolute divide between man and women. Children are brought up to beleive that men are strong and women are weak. These children do not view men and women as equals.  They believe a women is incapable of doing anything other than cooking and cleaning, which contributes to women being disempowered. In SA, it is estimated that a rape occurs every 26 seconds, with only one in every 25 rapes reported,” says Debi. “Having taught our Empowerment and Personal Safety workshop to many thousands of women and girls, it became increasingly clear to us that, by only educating women and girls, we were not preventing abusive and violent behaviours at their root. Our Empathy Programme for young boys teaches boys to empathise – to develop the ability to understand and share the feelings of others – so that they are less likely to engage in abusive and violent behaviour towards them.”

Created with the help of specialists and psychologists, the charity’s educational Empathy Programme for 10 to 13 year boys aims t break down stereotypes and help participants better understand the importance of gender equality; build empathetic behaviour and attitudes, particularly towards women and girls; in a fun and inspirational way,  provide boys with a foundation upon which they can decide that they want to play an enduring role in ending violence towards women.

“It’s all about encouraging boys who may not previously have had positive role models in their life to care about the safety and wellbeing of women and girls in their community and wish to protect them, therefore, becoming ‘real life super heroes’,” adds Debi. “By giving young boys a forum in which to talk about sexual violence against boys it helps prevent abusive or violent behaviour towards women and girls in the long-run.”

Debi explains the programme is still in pilot stage but has already been trialled in South Africa (87 boys in four sessions) and India (30 boys in two sessions). It is designed to be a highly interactive and positive experience in terms of content, providing the participants with guidance that will allow them to reach their own conclusion that stereotyping women/girls and that perpetrating violence or abuse is not a valuable or attractive life option.

Following a workshop in Soweto in December 2015, an impact assessment was conducted by a psychologist which found that 86 percent of the boys reported that they have been exposed to violence against woman and girls in their community.  100 percent of the participants reported that their views of violence against woman have changed after completing the project and 97 percent of the participants reported that their perceptions have been changed and that they view woman as being equal to men as opposed to the start of the programme.  A hundred percent of the sample reported that the workshop made a significant change to their lives and that they are going to act differently towards woman and girls, while 98.6 percent of the sample responded that they had fun during the workshop and that they think other boys their age should also get the opportunity to participate in this programme.

For more information on Action Breaks Silence, e-mail  [email protected]

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