Rape Victim to Survivor to Leader

“At first I was overwhelmed by Cookie’s high standards. But now I am used to her, and I am glad she sets high standards, because it has made me grow and be able to even teach my own community organisation to create local community rapid response teams.”

Nompilo Gcwensa is a rape survivor who lives in uMlazi, one of the major GBV hostpots in KZN. She been supported on her journey during the early days of WWSOSA, since 2013. She was initially not at all open about her experience, but then over time opened up through her involvement in a TearFund-led research process listening to survivor needs and a support group she joined.

Over the years, Nompilo has not only become open about her own experiences, but she has become a group leader (Champion) and in late 2018, we elected by the other 15 group champions working together as Chair of the Steering Committee tasked with growing the small survivor movement (just over 100 survivors at that time) into a broader network. With WWSOSA’s support, they have formed Phephisa Survivors’ Network, which has grown into a vibrant network of 28 groups in 26 communities, comprising almost 300 members.

Participation unfortunately diminished during COVID, because of challenges with maintaining contact amongst women with little online access or income, but many of the groups continue to meet online, and the Champions meet at least bi-monthly to debrief and find ways to support one another in solidarity during these very challenging times.

Phephisa’s stated purpose is to support survivors to establish community-based GBV support groups to accompany one another as survivors towards healing, and to become advocates against GBV as a human rights abuse, thus breaking the silence and shaking off stigma. Nompilo has been very active in broadening the network by assisting survivors in new areas to establish support groups and has flourished as Phephisa’s leader with support from the WWSOSA Project Officer and Coordinator.

Over time, Nompilo and other champions have become quite vocal about the needs of survivors in advocacy contexts, including their churches, at Provincial Gender Machinery meetings, and at Victim Empowerment Forums, and local Ward War Room meetings.

WWSOSA’s Constitution makes provision for survivor representation on its senior governance body, the Management Committee, and Nompilo and one other Phephisa Champion have been selected by the network members to these positions. Their contributions directly contribute to guiding WWSOSA’s work.

In her own words, this is how Nompilo described the most receipt outcomes of her growth as a leader in her faith community; “We are now able to hold meetings in our church anytime we ask. Many of our church leaders have started engaging in GBV issues, even in the pulpit. In my church, they have also opened for us in leading some sessions. Recently there was a case in our church and the survivor reported to the senior pastor. She was accompanied to open a case, even gathered leaders and informed them- I was asked to become involved as a survivor to help in accompanying her. It is amazing how leaders have grown in engaging in matters and not being ashamed to support survivors and engage in GBV. It was amazing in one sermon when one leader declared SGBV as a sin.“

The name Phephisa means to forgive, or to free oneself from not being able to let go. Nompilo has lived out this journey in her personal life, as she has managed to rekindle her relationship with the father of her son as part of her own deeper healing and growth in confidence during 2020.

However, she was not yet equipped to work with leaders of key service providers in her communities, in order to offer continuity of care for the many survivors who were coming forward to them for help. The Phephisa leadership set this as a priority development goal during 2020.

Because of her emerging leadership skills and her experience as the founding Chairperson of the Phephisa Survivors Network, WWSOSA introduced Nompilo to our key project partner, KZN Network on Violence Against Women, and together we invited her to join the team of Rapid Response Leaders that are critical to this current project.

She was not very confident to start with, but the mentoring she has received from the more experienced RRT leaders, and the training she has received from the Project Officer of this project, has meant that she grew from supporting only 5 survivors in the first month, to supporting over 20 in some months. Helping to organize the network meetings has also increased her confidence in networking. She has also become more experienced at offering structured information sessions on how to report abuse and find the relevant assistance among service providers.

In a sense, she is both a beneficiary and a Driver of Change, because the training, mentorship and support she is receiving in her work to assist GBV survivors access the relevant services they need is rapidly strengthening her capacity as a GBV activist and key first-responder to abuse survivors. At the same, she has been sharing what she is learning in this project with other Champions and leaders in the Phephisa Survivors Network, thus transforming and strengthening the survivor movement in KZN as well.

In Nompilo’s own words:

It has been a good opportunity and experience being part of the Rapid Response Team leaders. It has its highlights and some deep challenging moments that sometimes questions your response and contribution on GBV issues. Some of the challenges are that the community will always think or trust you as their first response and that you will help them and they will find justice, which at times its not the case. The systems sometimes are challenging, and my own success is dependent on those systems are working. So I am needing to speak up more often and offer feedback where systems are not survivor-friendly.

But it was also encouraging as a survivor myself I’ve learnt a lot and it has been part of my healing and advantage to empathize with other survivors. My highlights as a rapid response leader, is to understand and better use the power of networking with stakeholders around you, getting to know their work and having those relationships. It has made referrals to be quick and easy to help survivors. The Team meetings and other trainings around the NSP and PSP have also helped me. I love the opportunities to network with NGOs.

It’s not so often that a survivor is a leader, so for me being in these two decision-making roles in both Phephisa and WWSOSA and as an RRT leader, helps me to be fully engaged in these matters. My involvement in this project highlights how best I can respond to survivors needs, both as an RRT leader and as chair of Phephisa where I am able to help the GBV champions work on building their own local Rapid Response Teams.

I know that Phephisa will grow in its ability to lead Rapid Response Teams at local community level, in the same way that I am growing in confidence and am able to help more and more survivors access the support they need and find the healing and justice they long for.