Shanaaz Mathews, 58, is the evaluation lead for the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s global What Works to Prevent Violence Against Women and Girls programme and a professor in the faculty of health Ssciences at the University of Cape Town. But behind this is a much bigger story.
She has more than 30 years’ experience in the women’s and children’s sectors and has worked in civil society organisations, as an academic and as a technical adviser to government programmes specialising in children’s rights and violence against women.
Shanaaz grew up on the Cape Flats during apartheid and in a neighbourhood dominated by violence. Becoming a social worker and working in this field exposed her to multiple vulnerabilities that children and women face. She observed the generational cycle of violence and abuse in families and the gaps in the social work, policy and law enforcement system.
After practising social work for more than 10 years, she furthered her studies in public health. She completed her doctorate in the field of intimate femicide. Shanaaz went on to work for more than a decade at the South African Medical Research Council.
Her achievements include influencing policy changes for child protection services and the prevention of violence against women and children. During her time as the director of the Children’s Institute at UCT, she achieved multiple collaborations with researchers to produce the yearly series of the publication Child Gauge.
What is the best piece of advice you've ever been given?
I grew up on the Cape Flats during a very difficult time in South Africa’s political history. We had very little schooling in my matric year but I had the most amazing class teacher who encouraged me — and encouraged me to think big and apply to university even when my parents could not afford the fees. Her advice was get the best education you can possibly get and I am forever grateful.
Our theme this year is Accelerating Equality & Empowerment in Women. How do you empower yourself and women around you?
In the mid-1990s I worked on establishing a network around violence against women so that women could share their experiences in parliamentary processes and meetings to shape the formulation of the Domestic Violence Act of 1998. Through this process I learnt that I can only be empowered if I listen to women and let their experiences shape my research and advocacy agenda. It is also through this process of inquiry and giving women a voice that women can be empowered to break free from the oppression and control that many experience on a daily basis. It is about treating women with respect so that they learn to believe in themselves, which is the first step towards empowerment.
If you could change or achieve one thing for South Africa today, what would it be?
I strive for a society where children and adults can all live free from violence. For children, violence can have profound and long-term consequences on their ability to reach their full potential. This not only has consequences for the child and their families but for the wider society. Therefore, preventing violence against children is not only a moral imperative, but also a strategic one for the whole of society.