#WeBelieveThem: Feminist caucus calls for end to ‘culture of silence’ in NGO sector

In the wake of the allegations of sexual misconduct and institutional failure within Equal Education, the NGO Feminist Caucus has come out in solidarity with the women in the sector who have voiced their experiences of sexual assault.

On Monday, the caucus released a press statement — signed by activists from ActionAid South Africa, Positive Women’s Network and other non-governmental organisations — in support of those victimised within the social justice sector.

The statement comes after details of Equal Education’s institutional failure to address sexual harassment allegations emerged in an investigation published in the Mail & Guardian.

The M&G exposé found that the organisation’s co-founder Doron Isaacs has been repeatedly accused of sexual harassment, and senior figures in the organisation, including prominent activist Zackie Achmat, had been accused of covering his tracks.

Isaacs has since resigned as the organisation’s treasurer and Equal Education has said it is pursuing investigations into the allegations against him, as well as former general secretary Tshepo Motsepe and former head of national organising, Luyolo Mazwembe.

“We applaud the incredible bravery it took for those who have spoken out thus far, especially with the knowledge that we live in a world where those who call out abuse routinely face backlash, intimidation and derision from their abusers and their enablers,” said the statement.

In the statement, the caucus called for a default approach to accusations of sexual assault that places the burden of disproving the allegations on those accused of misconduct.

The feminist collective also noted “with grave concern” the victimisation of the M&G journalist who broke the story, condemning these attempts to maintain a “culture of silence” in the sector.

They added, while they endorse the ideals of due process in investigating these allegations, these procedures often end up ensuring the protection of predators and the punishment of survivors.“For us, the litmus test for the quality of our responses should be if victims/survivors feel that their interests are truly placed at the center of our ‘due processes’,” said the statement. “This should be located within a critical analysis of power relations, to ensure that our interventions are responsive to the dynamic and violent nature of patriarchy, and not reduced to mere tick box exercises to escape management and governance culpability.”

READ MORE: We are looking inward: Equal Education

The caucus also condemned the “punitive response” of the Western Cape department of education in the immediate termination of its partnerships with Equal Education.

In a statement released on May 22, Equal Education claimed Education MEC Debbie Schäfer sent a letter requesting that EE “not engage with any learners in the Western Cape” until a meeting between EE and her office is held.

READ MORE: W. Cape suspends Equal Education’s school operations after sexual harassment claims

Instead of the punitive approach — which has seen donors suspending funding with the social justice organisation — the caucus has called for a “partnership approach focused on lasting solutions to this systemic crisis”.

The caucus has demanded that organisations, their boards and donors put in place a transparent process to ensure victim-centered processes are followed to ensure that women are protected when speaking out against sexual harassment.

They also called for public apologies and appropriate reparations to be made to the women who may have left these organisations as a result of experiences of institutional failure.

Further, the caucus demanded that the names of those found to be guilty are made public “to prevent the continued circulation of predators in our sector”.

Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She covers topics relating to labour, corruption and the law.
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