‘I call myself a survivor – not all SGBV victims have lived to tell the tale’ – UP acting transformation manager on being a voice for change

Posted on August 28, 2020

“Sexual and gender-based violence [SGBV] does not always happen in a dark alley; it is carried out mainly by people we know and trust,” says Sarah Matseke, whose work as acting transformation manager at the University of Pretoria (UP) is informed by her own devastating experience with SGBV.

“By the age of 16, I had been sexually abused by a close family member, raped by my paternal cousin, then raped by a stranger – a soldier, in uniform, while we were at church,” she reveals.

Matseke says she felt like a victim for 40 years and struggled with shame and self-blame as a young woman. “This led to my silence, then depression,” she says. “I survived by eating my pain away, causing other cycles: obesity, emotional abuse and body shaming.”

Through her ordeal, Matseke says she found hope in her then boyfriend, now husband, who proved to her that there are indeed decent men out there. “I call myself a survivor – not all SGBV victims have lived to tell the tale,” she says.

Now, not only is Matseke acting manager of transformation at UP, but she also spearheads the university’s #SpeakOutUP campaign against gender-based violence and harassment. Her work involves assessing cases of sexual violence, which requires her to counsel victims so that they feel comfortable talking about their ordeal. It also involves and educating victims as well as perpetrators.

“There is an average of five cases a month that are related to all kinds of discrimination, with rape, sexual harassment and racism the most prevalent cases reported,” Matseke explains. “Cases are handled with sensitivity and the strictest confidentiality. Although everyone is deemed innocent until proven guilty when handling a case, we tend to take a victim-centred approach. Psychological support services are offered at the beginning of the investigation process right to the end. Perpetrators are also offered psychological support – part of the Transformation Office’s ethos is that they are human beings who have erred, and deserve the opportunity to repent and change.”

As for what keeps her motivated, she says: “What keeps me going is seeing hope dawning in the eyes of victims who think that no one would believe their story, as well as seeing the bewilderment in the eyes of perpetrators when they realise that what they did was wrong. Seeing these transformations and restorations occur while justice is being served makes me realise how I am contributing to God’s work.”

Matseke says the biggest challenge is ensuring the participation of all staff and students in transformation. “Transformation at UP involves everybody – it is not the role of executive or senior management to bring about change within UP,” she says. “Each department or faculty has a transformation committee that reports to the Institutional Transformation Committee of the university. It is everybody’s responsibility to participate in these committees in order to create the change they want to see.”

Student Representative Council President David Kabwa and former Community Engagement Officer, House Humanities, Stephanie Cookson approached Matseke to steer the #SpeakOutUP campaign, which was started in 2018. The idea was to ensure that student volunteers would be physically available in an office to assist other students who have been victims of SGBV. Student volunteers were trained by the Centre for Sexualities Aids and Gender, which is also assisting the Transformation Office manage the #SpeakOutUP student office at Hatfield.

Matseke says since the launch of UP’s anti-discrimination policy, #SpeakOutUP has grown from an initiative that focused predominantly on sexual and gender-based violence to cover all forms of discrimination, including racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, chauvinism, religious intolerance, hate speech and more.

In order to put an end to SGBV, Matseke believes that education and awareness around its definitions are key. “Even as a SGBV survivor, I did not realise that what had occurred to me was gender-based violence – that is, until I came to work in this space of social justice. A lot of women, children, even men, as well as the LGBTQI+ community experience SGBV, but some don’t even know what it is they are going through.”

Thankfully, Matseke remains motivated to play her part in that education for a long time to come. “I aspire to open an NGO that will provide a library and a social skills centre where youth from my disadvantaged community can learn about how to take care of themselves when it comes to gender-based violence in their environment, and to develop their self-esteem.”

- Author Xolani Mathibela

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