I look at an ant and I see myself…endowed by nature with a strength much greater than my size so I might cope with the weight of a racism that crushes my spirit. I look at a stream and I see myself… flowing irresistibly over hard obstacles until they become smooth and, one day, disappear.”
—Miriam Makeba (1932-2008), South African singer, songwriter and civil rights activist also known as Mama Afrika
South Africa's history of government-sanctioned oppression and brutality has fostered a climate of violence. Coupled with cultural norms and traditions that reinforce male dominance, violation of women’s rights to security and bodily integrity within their homes, in schools and within the wider society is commonplace.
Seeking change, young women in the sprawling township of Soweto in Johannesburg formed Ekasi Women's Art Ensemble (Ekasi) in 2003 to address the threat of and lived violence that touch their lives daily. Recognizing the significance and power of storytelling in their culture, Ekasi uses community theater as a tool to help women, men and school children explore, discuss and problem-solve around important topics: HIV/AIDS, gender inequalities, land rights and sexual violence. Working within poor rural and urban communities, Ekasi endeavors both to change community norms and attitudes surrounding gender roles and violence against women while also using theater to uplift and empower marginalized women.
Seeing youth as a powerful force for social change and noting that gender-based discrimination begins at the elementary school level, Ekasi also conducts workshops in Soweto's schools. These workshops, Ekasi maintains, will foster greater understanding and gender equity that will be critical in curbing the spread of HIV/AIDS, which is fundamentally altering the shape of South African society.
Ekasi’s recent efforts, bolstered by the Global Fund, have focused on ending rape in Soweto’s schools. Ekasi is organizing school-based Student Safety Teams in 40 schools, training police to treat rape incidents in a professional and fair manner, and educating approximately 20,000 young women in self-defense and the importance of post exposure prophylaxis for HIV prevention.
Participatory community theater, which both honors South Africa’s rich culture and reaches a broad swath of society is enabling Ekasi to demonstrate that lasting changes in favor of women’s full empowerment and freedom from violence are both necessary and achievable.
By Adriana Maria Sapetto, a student at University of San Francisco and an intern at the Global Fund for Women