UP Drama: Exploring gender-based violence through performance

Posted on December 22, 2021

Every year, we are relieved that the annual 16 Days of Activism for No Violence against Women and Children campaign exists, yet we wonder what this campaign achieves in practical, concrete terms. Across the different levels of adjusted lockdown levels since March 2020, there has been a reported radical increase in rape, murder and attempted murder cases compared to the previous reporting period.

The legacy of apartheid and its associated violence and inequalities, a government that does not sufficiently invest in addressing the problem of gender-based violence (GBV), women’s lower socio-economic status and continued patriarchy have been identified as key drivers of GBV. Our research aimed to find out, respectively from two participant groups in Phomolong, Saulsville, and Tshepo Section in Tembisa what their perceptions on the drivers of GBV in their communities were.

We used the performing arts as a way to open up conversations about the perceived causes of violence against women, in particular, in relation to cisgender, heterosexual partnerships. This approach further assisted us to learn about the ways in which masculinity and femininity are relationally performed in everyday life and how these gender performances are shaped by socio-cultural narratives. 

We used elements of forum theatre to activate audience participation and stimulate post-performance discussions. Audience members could identify moments in the scenes and suggest changes that the performers could then enact, they could step into the performance space and play out their suggestions, or question the actions and motives of the roles performers played. In the case of the latter, performers replied to the questions and prompts from audience members in character. Following the participatory engagement, we held focused discussions with audience members.


We found that whilst spoken word and dance performances drew much audience response during the performances, and generated a strong ‘felt’ sense of the pain the content spoke to, the scenes using the genres of drama and comedy elicited broad and nuanced conversations. Those were also the scenes that participants perceived as being close to reality and involving situations and characters they can identify with. Discussions stemming from these performances confirmed that perceptions about issues such as domestic violence, alcohol abuse, poverty, unemployment and notions of masculinity and femininity were key to concerns about the drivers of violence against women in both participant groups.

Students Buhle Sibanyoni and Danté-Elliot du Plessis were part of performances used to activate audience participation and stimulate post-performance discussions. (Image: David April)

Women spoke firmly about the idea of being expected to respect men as their superiors. Actions and behaviours of women such as questioning a man’s decisions or actions and not fully tending to a man’s needs were identified disrespectful and as drivers of violence. Household tasks and child-rearing are perceived as strictly gendered. Women wanting to, or even having to, work to keep the household going and pointing to financial strains are seen as emasculating men and questioning their role as provider and leader. A large majority of women in the participant groups indicated that these gendered expectations do not serve the interests of women and girls, and all agreed that not adhering to them may lead to violence.  In Tshepo Section, women flagged polygamy as a driver of GBV, with the first wife having only pseudo-power.

Women pointed to the role friends and family play in shaping adherence to these expectations by, for example, songs sung during wedding celebrations and advice sessions by mothers and aunts warning women that they have to find ways of surviving all the challenges at their new home. Returning to their parents’ home is considered a taboo and carries societal stigma. Women who escape abusive relationships and return to their parents’ homes are labelled ‘returned soldiers’. This use of language, together with the idea of disciplining women who step out of line and the expectation of unquestioning obedience, not only militarises relationships, but also masculinity. At the same time, it reinforces docility in women as an attribute of ideal femininity.

The ideas that men must be strong and should not cry to demonstrate masculinity, and that women have to bear what comes their way as a show of their maternal strength, also strongly surfaced. According to one respondent, this marker of womanhood is reinforced by the struggle slogan of wathinta abafazi wathinta imbokodo (you strike a woman, you strike a rock). Its continued use in the face of sexual and gender-based violence supports the idea that woman can, and should, be able to “take it”– valorising her endurance of violence and positioning it as a noble cause.

Women also pointed to the influence of upbringing and male friends in violence against women, emphasising notions of male control and superiority. It transpired that not being able to “control your woman” makes the man a target of ridicule amongst men and women. Men observed that in most cases they know about others’ violence and do not condone it. Women’s perceptions, however, are that men do not act against one another.

UP School of the Arts student Lebone Manyama. (Image: David April)

Both groups of men observed that the casualisation of violence, the objectification and sexualisation of women in places such as taverns contribute to the perpetuation of gender-based violence in these communities. Mostly, men do not correct, but encourage each other to using objectifying superlatives when describing women. Linked to this was the public discussion of private sexual encounters with women, which from participants’ perceptions, exposed women to attack and rape by fellow men.

Both groups of men highlighted that poverty was a major cause of GBV and forces women to stay in abusive relationships as they are financially dependent. Young men in Tshepo Section highlighted that the violence in television programmes they are exposed to encodes onto their psyche.

According to both groups of women, gender bias manifests amongst police officers to which cases are reported. Further, women who report incidents of violence are often tuned back home as the matter is ‘domestic’. These perceptions position some police officers as complicit in driving violence against women. In Phomolong, in particular, the perception that men with money bought themselves out of problems with the woman’s family or the justice process surfaced. The perpetuation of GBV was also ascribed to the lack of collective effort from men and women in communities, indicating a need for collective problem-solving.

From being raised in households and having friends and family who confirm restrictive gender roles (“the grave of the woman is with her in-laws”, “that’s just how a man is”), to perceptions that violence is inherent to men (“it’s in their blood”), women subjected to violence navigate an intricate web of narratives that uphold socio-cultural hegemony.

As we draw closer to the end of the 16 days campaign, we call upon communities not only to observe these days but to ‘live’ the campaign as part of their lifestyle.

Prof Marié-Heleen Coetzee is an associate professor in drama at the University of Pretoria; Dr Nkululeko Sibanda is a lecturer in drama at the University of Pretoria; Rian Terblanche is a lecturer in drama at the University of Pretoria, and David April is a lecturer in and production manager for drama the University of Pretoria.

This article first appeared on news24 on 15 December 2021.

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