/ 31 August 2018

Dr Sibu Qhogwana

We need to change the language that keeps women suppressed
We need to change the language that keeps women suppressed, says Dr Sibu Qhogwana. (Graphic: John McCann)

A clinical psychologist, University of Johannesburg lecturer and activist, Dr Sibu Qhogwana’s work is primarily focused on the impact of incarceration on women and finding ways of offering tangible rehabilitation to offenders.

Her PhD thesis, published in March 2017, was titled: “We are Human too: A narrative analysis of rehabilitation experiences by women classified as maximum security offenders in the Johannesburg Correctional Centre”.

“My full-time job is supposed to be lecturing, but I do a lot of research and community projects,” says Qhogwana. “There are definitely conversations around gender-based violence and how women can understand each other.”

The one criticism Qhogwana has of the events centred around women — she’s taken part in several — is that too many of them are still concentrated around Women’s Day.

Qhogwana grew up in the Eastern Cape town of Herschell, a rural town about two hours from Bloemfontein. Her schooling was in the town, and she learned in Xhosa until she enrolled for her undergraduate studies in Bloemfontein. She later did her master’s in clinical psychology in KwaZulu-Natal.

Regarding incarceration, Qhogwana has concerned herself with the intersection of the punitive nature of incarceration and the replication of trauma in women, who may have been forced to commit crimes because of traumatic circumstances. “Women are much more prone to depression than men,” says Qhogwana. “There are biological aspects, hormones and all that, but through the patriarchal view of society, women are burdened with home responsibilities while also being expected to work. It can be an overwhelming experience being a woman, especially if you talk to women themselves.”

It is gender-based violence, rape and abuse that puts women at a high risk for trauma, says Qhogwana, though women tend to speak out more and consult more than men.

Qhogwana has discovered that women who are considered maximum offenders are usually neglected, because of the expectation that they will not be eligible for parole. “The community outside correctional services doesn’t really feel the need to visit them or do anything,” she says. “Within correctional centres, they are not given attention because of the nature of the sentences; the system focuses more on those likely to be released back into their communities.

“When they apply for parole and they do get it, then they are quickly forced into rehab. They are a neglected community within the prison, falling victim to a ‘worse than the rest’ mentality. But they still need to be rehabilitated, so they can be better mothers.”

Asked how she would characterise the impact of, say, the women’s ministry, Qhogwana is quite critical; she says that, from the top down, the language tends to characterise women’s issues through a patriarchal prism.

“More work needs to go into looking at how policies can change family systems, how policies can change how women are treated and be given a space for leadership at work,” she says. “People who need to be changing things are still speaking the language that keeps women oppressed.”

Qhogwana is interested in research that will contain outcomes that could lead to implementation, on a policy-making level.

“My starting point is to look at family, religious spaces and organisations,” she says. “What are the obstacles? In some cases, women themselves are agents of perpetrating patriarchal systems against each other.”