South Africa suffers great violence, particularly sexual violence – as do most major cities in the U.S., including Washington, DC where I live. In 2006, South Africa had 40.4 murders per 100,000 people. That same year DC had 29.7 murders per 100,000 and Birmingham, Alabama had 44.5. The parallels in statistics extend far beyond crime. A 2012 report found that in DC, HIV/AIDS had a 3.2% prevalence in the population. According to the report, if Washington DC were an African nation, it would rank 23rd out of 54 countries in percentage of people with HIV/AIDS. The list goes on and on. Issues of education, gentrification, mental illness, drugs, class, and race show little statistically significant differences between regions. On paper it’s hard to tell which is a city in a ‘developed’ country and in a ‘developing’ country. Maybe that’s not the important distinction.
Having lived in Cape Town for six months, I saw people striving for change in ways I haven’t seen in Washington. Point-by-point, when looking at what is being done to address issues such as sexual violence or HIV/AIDS, I found that the residents of Cape Town are taking action.
This social action is epitomized by the work I witnessed at the Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust. During my time as a Rape Crisis intern, the program nearest to my heart was The Birds and Bees. The program educated peer educators to challenge the negative social norms that drive rape among youth, and support survivors in their schools. They train both boys and girls aged 13-18 from high schools in low income neighborhoods how to be role models to their fellow peers and youth of the community through a series of seminars covering a wide range of topics such as relationships, sex, sexuality, HIV, rape, and gender equality. I witnessed first hand how amazing and effective this rape prevention model is. To have a fourteen year old boy say “Rape Crisis changed me a lot. […] I can tell another person about how to treat a woman” is both uplifting and groundbreaking.
What makes this program so effective is the open and participatory style of discussion that allows students to feel comfortable asking anything. The format makes it so that every student, whether girl or boy, is more confident, knowledgeable, and committed to making change in their community as an ally of Rape Crisis and as an advocate for the citizens of their country. The work that I witnessed oceans away inspired me to seek something like this at home in Washington. I wanted to be a part of something that empowered the youth of the city who are most vulnerable to its harsh realities – and I found it!
Peer Health Exchange (PHE) is an organization that trains college students to go into inner city 9th grade classrooms and teach sexual education and drug and alcohol awareness. The ‘near-peer’ model is similar to Rape Crisis’s peer model. Recently, the organization modified its curriculum in ways that draws it even closer to the Rape Crisis’s model. Just a year ago, the program was lecture style, like most high school sex-ed – simply facts presented in an hour and the hope that it sticks with a fourteen year old for the rest of their life. PHE’s new model uses activities, interaction, and discussion between teacher and student. Through the near-peer model, the goal is not to tell students what they should and should not do, but rather supply facts and teach an effective decision making process that allows students to make their own decisions that are right for them. Teaching began in October, and I believe the new model will be a more effective means of addressing issues that affect Washington youth. Cape Town and Washington might be distant, but they are not unlike each other. They are united by their weaknesses but also by the strength of their citizens, determined to make their homes better for the future.
Shakti has worked in peer education youth programs in Cape Town, with the Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust, and in Washington, DC, with Peer Health Exchange and has a passion for gender rights and health issues.