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Working against domestic violence ó
profile of Ashoka Fellow Mmatshilo Motsei

A report about a a nurse in South Africa who initiated an organization to make the issue of domestic violence visible and influence the way in which institutions deal with it. 

Alexandra Township near Johannesburg, South Africa, is bursting at the seams. Squatter settlements bulge at its edges - shanty towns of cardboard and corrugated iron. And every day more people arrive from the countryside. More than 300,000 people live together in just over one square mile. The population is 100 per cent black. Physical assault is commonplace and on the rise; the brutality of crime, especially against women and girls, is increasing. Through this maze of violence, Mmatshilo Motsei has found a way to its most intimate center: the family. In 1992 she started an organization called ADAPT (Agisanang Domestic Abuse Prevention and Training Program) to make the issue of domestic violence visible and influence the way institutions dealt with it.

Mmatshilo calls herself a healer, and she began her career as a nurse. While still in training she discovered that healing is a political act.

"Like any other training of professionals in this country, there was differential treatment in the training of nurses. The nursing councils have been run by white women for centuries. Black nurses wrote the same examinations, but after qualifying we work in a black hospital and get less money. Black hospitals are overcrowded - with patients sleeping on the floor, without proper food, or adequate supplies of drugs. And we know that in a white hospital some wards have to close down because there arenít enough patients. To make sure there was no reaction from nurses, there was an indoctrination that nursing and politics do not mix."

One night while she was on duty, Mmatshilo witnessed a vivid example of the place of black women in the status quo. "I remember a woman who was brought in late at night. She was assaulted by her husband, chopped with an axe on the knee, and the axe was still stuck in the knee. Thatís when the seed was planted for me."

Mmatshilo went on to graduate study; again the curriculum was devoid of social critique. Later she conducted a survey on violence against domestic workers. "I realized at that time that women, especially black women who are domestic workers, were being abused both by their employers and by their partners. I needed to act. I decided to set up the project ADAPT."

ADAPT seeks to reduce the incidence of domestic violence while increasing the quality of care and support for victims of violence provided at hospitals and other institutions. Shortly after she founded ADAPT, Mmatshilo analysed Alexandraís medical records of the women who had a history of being assaulted. She discovered that health-care professionals rarely voiced what they were seeing, perhaps because they could not tolerate the pain of bearing witness. As part of its work, ADAPT has developed courses for police and health-care officials in Alexandra, to sensitize them on how to deal with victims of domestic violence. These courses have been replicated successfully nationwide. Mmatshilo uses workshops and lectures to promote self-awareness and consciousness of the problem. She has also founded Alexandraís first battered womenís shelter, and established a legal-aid clinic for victims of domestic violence.


When the government changed in South Africa, Mmatshilo was asked to become the national advisor for women and gender to the new governmentís lead social program, called the Reconstruction and Development Program. In 1995 Mmatshilo co-ordinated the creation of a policy document on womenís empowerment for the Presidentís office. It recognizes that the issue of violence against women crosses separate disciplines such as health, education and labor.

"For me, the process of producing national policy was a painful one. Too much talk without action. But I have contacts in government now. Even though the process was difficult, Iím learning to lobby and use the access and achieve power in that. Now we are waiting on implementation. People want to do something for women, but there are no resources."

Mmatshilo has returned to the local level where she is demonstrating how to achieve progress with the very limited resources available. Her programs have reached the office of the mayor, schools, and churches - where they challenge Christians still advocating that women 'turn the other cheek'. Clinics in other towns are replicating her program; one has a commitment for funding from a local platinum mine.

Beyond the institutional base she has created, the pattern-breaking aspect of Mmatshiloís vision is its reach into underlying causes: "The ultimate solution to the problem is a fundamental change in the position of women in society. To focus on violence is too narrow. My focus is to change peopleís attitudes. The provision of shelters, even though itís so important, is short-term. If we focus on putting abusers in jail, it goes nowhere. In the long term itís about self-pride and self-worth and self-love. Many people have never experienced love when they grew up, so they are unable to love the next person. In this country it is closely related to self-pride as black people."

Mmatshiloís work began with women, but it has moved on to include the entire community. With the help of a counselor from England who runs a center for abusive men, Mmatshilo has developed courses for men in Alexandra. She was particularly heartened by the response to a workshop on healthy relationships that she conducted for young people. "I deliberately invited a black man whoís working in development to come and speak about the struggle that is facing a black boy in that township. That talk really got the young men at the conference moving. The atmosphere was pregnant with emotion. You could feel it. At the same time, you could see these young men trying very hard not to express what they feel inside. Because thatís what they have been socialized to do. As the conference progressed, one of the young men got up to say that ĎAll along, I thought I knew who I was. I actually donít know who I am.í At the end, they made a request to meet on their own and discuss issues that are painful for them. They said that they recognized the violence they have suffered as black boys in the township and that the violence they have suffered makes them violent. Many even said that they abused their girlfriends. They want a forum where they would look at this violence and do something about it. That was the highlight. It was something I never will forget.

"Afterwards, I facilitated the discussion for the young women. I asked one question: ĎWhat do you want the young men to know about you?í This young woman, who had never spoken at any point in a workshop, got up to say: ĎI want them to know that they donít own the world, that we have rights, too.í That for me was profound."

Part of Mmatshiloís training for her staff of counselors is to deal with the pain they themselves have experienced because of violence. That comes first. "I have been there," she says; and she has grown to see the additional need to take care of herself in ways that sustain the new level of effectiveness that has become possible for a black woman in her country.

"The thing about South Africa at this time is that thereís so much to do. Thereís so few of us, even though we are many. We tend just to think about giving support to others. We donít make time to meet and talk about ourselves and give support to one another."

Throughout her career, Mmatshilo has learned a great deal from those she works with. "The greatest lesson about empowerment for me is working with poor black women. I came to this project thinking that I knew what to do. I interacted with these people and realized that this is not the way I thought it was going to be. I learned a lot from them. The working-class women are very strong. Often researchers and writers tend to portray them as victims, pathetic helpless people who canít do anything about their lives. Working with them, looking at the conditions in which they live, their tenacity, their resistance, is what I have learned from them.

"If everyone who works in development really understood that, we would learn not to waste time trying to change people. We would learn to listen to what people want and how they want it. And accelerate the process. We would become catalysts. Instead, we become obstacles because we want to do things our own way. We think we know. We could listen and hear what people tell us, we could become channels. A community is like a river thatís flowing in this direction, and you want to block the stream and divert it to a different direction because you think they need this and that. If you manage to block the stream itís a waste of time. But you can just let the stream flow. If itís slow you can assist by making it faster. If there isnít adequate water you can be thinking with them about how to make it better."

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First published April 1999, Last modified: 15-Oct-2005