Change the world


Everybody has a story, but not everybody’s story or voice is heard, particularly if you are a woman from the rural areas of South Africa.

To find those voices – and in the process attempt to address gender-based violence, a critical driver of the HIV epidemic – Nelson Mandela University’s Prof Naydene de Lange co-led a unique pilot project, the short name for which is “Girls leading change”, in partnership with researchers from McGill University, Canada and the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

What has transpired is that 14 young women – most of whom have seen, heard of or experienced gender-based violence, from watching a mother being beaten by a father, to being bullied at school, or forced to have sex with a boyfriend – have become agents for change, presenting their ideas to policy makers, telling their stories at sexual violence forums throughout the country, sharing information with their communities, and even travelling to the United States to share their stories there.

“Their engagement in the small project has enabled them to take up agency – individually and collectively – in speaking out against injustices in various spaces,” said De Lange, who holds a Research Chair in HIV and AIDS in Education.

The pilot project – the long name for which is “Digital media for change and well-being: Girl-led ‘from the ground up’ policy-making in addressing sexual violence at a South African university” – feeds into a larger six-year project called: “Networks for change and well-being: Girl-led ‘from the ground up’ policy-making in addressing sexual violence in Canada and South Africa”.

The pilot began in 2013 when De Lange sent out an email to first-year education students from rural areas, inviting them to be part of the project.

“They are vulnerable as first-year students from the rural areas. We worked with them to understand what sexual violence was.”

The 14 young women who responded met together regularly over 18 months, to explore critical issues related to sexual violence, particularly on campus.

They produced “cellphilms” (a film made with a cellphone, for a cellphone) about the situation for young women in the university’s residences, and on other parts of campus.

Then, they took action, producing policy posters and action briefs which they as a group presented to various policy makers on campus.

“They were able to point out issues on campus that affect them – such as feeling unsafe in residences where men are allowed to enter, or feeling vulnerable at big sports events, or trying to convince their peers that date-rape is also rape, and a criminal offence.

“They got their voices to policy makers. Out of that, emerged the need to create a gender forum, which is now in the process of being established at university level.”

A chance meeting with Dr Mumbi Mwangi – a Carnegie African Diaspora Fellow and Professor in Women’s Studies at St Cloud State University in the United States – led to an invitation to St Cloud’s to participate in gender-related work at the university and surrounding schools.

“These 14 students understand what gender-based violence is and what they can do to make a change … Most have done some work within their own communities, to replicate what they have learned. They are engaging other youth in their communities to look at life and gender-based violence differently. They have become agents of change.

“This project has been very meaningful. It’s an example of how research can be linked to social change.”

The students also developed and wrote down their own personal stories relating to gender-based violence, which they performed in public, reading extracts while dressed in traditional clothing. The stories have been published in a book, titled “Fourteen times a woman: Indigenous stories from the heart”.

The women are now fourth-year students – and continue to work with each other. When they graduate, they will remain in the project as part of a virtual group.

De Lange and her co-researchers are also setting up an advisory board for a women’s network between South Africa and Canada, to enable them to learn from each other.

“The girls have already been communicating via Skype and some of them have spoken face to face.”

De Lange’s other projects include working with school girls in Paterson, to initiate dialogues and awareness about gender-based violence. “The idea is to get the girls thinking: What can I do? What can my school do? What can my community do? And then for them to share their cellphilms, policy posters and action briefs with the school and community.”

She also headed up an HIV and AIDS community of practice, which has looked at integrating HIV and AIDS across the Education Faculty curriculum at 26 universities in South Africa and elsewhere.

“The aim is to develop teachers, who will in turn integrate HIV and AIDS into the classroom.”

She is also helping to establish a community of practice at one of the local Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) colleges, also with the aim of integrating HIV and AIDS into the curriculum. “The students the lecturers work with are a very vulnerable group in the HIV and AIDS epidemic.  Together we can make a difference.”

Contact information
Prof Naydene de Lange
Tel: 27 41 504 4519