Debi Steven was raped twice before she turned 11. Talking to the Mail & Guardian, she says: “Both times I was raped, it was by white men and actually they were not monsters, they were my brothers’ friends.”
Steven, who grew up in South Africa and who now lives in the United Kingdom, says that even though the rapes happened decades ago, she only realised a few years ago, as a rape survivor, that she did not understand boundaries and sexual violence when growing up.
“When you are younger and people are doing all these things to you, you don’t even understand what is happening. It is a terrible time.”
It took her years to open up about her ordeal and so to help others in a similar situation, she founded a nonprofit organisation known as Action Breaks Silence in 2015. The organisation operates in the UK, South Africa and India.
In South Africa, ABS educates grade five boys and girls in primary schools in Soweto and Pretoria West, about sexual violence, self-love, empowerment, boundaries and expressing emotions.
The programmes are run through conversations and age-appropriate exercises, which are led by volunteers who come from the communities in which they work so they understand the dynamics and contexts of the children.
Steven says: “We are breaking down rape myths and we are being very honest about who the perpetrators are. We are talking to youngsters about the fact that it could be their father, uncle or their neighbour or their boyfriend [that could rape them].”
Young girls in the programme are taught about consent, healthy relationships and healthy communication.
Steven adds that the girls are also taught physical self-defence.
“Boys are also taught to respect when girls have set boundaries and respect them when they say ‘no’.”
Crucially, she says, boys are taught that they are allowed to feel sadness, to cry and to express their emotions: “Most often boys don’t know how to express anything other than anger.”
Stevens says that an important — but often difficult — step is to try and engage all the teachers and staff at the school, so that they understand what Action Breaks Silence does so that they are able to support the message. This step extends to working with caregivers and parents.
“When I ask mothers, here in London, what they teach their kids, and mothers in Soweto it’s all the same rubbish that is outdated, things that we were taught 30 years ago. And everything has changed and so it is very important for us to engage the parents and caregivers,” she says.
The 12-hour programme is offered every week during the life orientation session.
In recent weeks, the country has been under a dark cloud as cases of gender-based violence made headlines — from the death of University of Cape Town student Uyinene Mrwetyana, grade 12 learner Aviwe Wellem from Dutywa in the Eastern Cape to that of South African boxing champion Leighandre “Baby Lee” Jegels.
The scourge of violence against women (and children) in the country led to President Cyril Ramaphosa announcing last month — during a special sitting to debate the grave issue in the National Assembly — that an additional R1.1-billion in funding in this financial year would be used to respond to the violence.
Ramaphosa also announced a five-point emergency plan to deal with the violence, which includes: strengthening the criminal justice system; ensuring adequate care, support and healing for victims of violence; improving the economic power of women; and preventing gender-based violence.