Queen's University Queen's University

Rosemary Jolly and Stevenson Fergus

Tackling HIV and gender-based violence in South Africa

Physically, the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa is a diverse place. Located in the northeastern quadrant of the country, it has a long subtropical coastline on the Indian Ocean where you’ll find Durban, one of South Africa’s major cities and one of the continent’s busiest ports. The inland regions consist of grassy rolling hills, home to farmers and world-class wildlife preserves.

[Stevenson Fergus]

The countryside may be picturesque, but the natural beauty masks some disturbing human realities. Because little paid employment exists in the rural areas – the traditional territory of the once-mighty Zulu kingdom – family life in the villages has been disrupted by men leaving their families for weeks and months at a time to work in the cities. KwaZulu-Natal has one of the world’s highest rates of HIV infection; approximately one-third of its population carries the virus. Despite the abolition of apartheid in 1991, the violent legacies of that practice continue to have extensive effects. Violence against women and children is commonplace.

The social and health issues in KwaZulu-Natal are complex, interrelated and intergenerational, and governments and social agencies at all levels are hard pressed to cope with them. Among those on the front lines is a multidisciplinary research team from Queen’s University that has been working at the grassroots level in the Sisonke District Municipality of KwaZulu-Natal to help devise solutions to some of the region’s most intractable problems: HIV infection and gender-based violence, and the relationship between the two.

Jointly led by Queen’s professor Rosemary Jolly, a native South African who is cross-appointed to the Department of English and the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies, and Stevenson Fergus, an associate professor who is cross-appointed to the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies and the Department of Community Health and Epidemiology, the project is funded by a five-year, $1.5 million grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).

"[...] you don’t just go in and tell people what to do. You actually work with them to uncover goals and solutions to what people are facing,” says Fergus.

Their work has two main, but interrelated objectives. The first involves bringing men and women together in workshops and other activities to talk frankly and openly about the roots of family violence – primarily, but not exclusively, against women – and HIV infection. In this part of the world, providing a forum for discussion about such taboo subjects is itself a novel measure – though it’s not without precedent. South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, on which Jolly has published extensively, heard victims’ stories of abuse and state-sanctioned torture during the apartheid era. What she heard there formed part of her motivation for her later field work.

The “community mobilization” activities inform the project’s second objective, which is to recommend and support ways to enhance existing government and NGO health services, or interventions, that address both HIV and gender-based violence. Jolly helped found two rape crisis centres in the study region, which nevertheless remains dramatically underserviced.

Although the current project is new, Jolly and Alan Jeeves, an emeritus history professor from Queen’s, have been working in KwaZulu-Natal since 1998. Fergus, who joined the team in 2007, says their longtime presence among the people they’re researching helps distinguish them from so-called “helicopter researchers” who simply visit a study area for a few weeks to gather data from the inhabitants and then head home, never to return.

[Rosemary Jolly]

“As someone with my training in public health, I was really convinced that you don’t just go in and tell people what to do. You actually work with them to uncover goals and solutions to what people are facing,” says Fergus, who has brought a set of quantitative research design components to the table that have been key to the development of the project’s goals. “It was clear to me that since Rose and Alan had been there for such a long time, they were in a really good place to do that.”

That trust relationship is important, because the topics under the microscope are incredibly sensitive. Jolly and Fergus are asking men and women to talk about abusive relationships, about their sex lives, about rape and incest, about the frustrations of unemployment, disempowerment and discrimination. “No one will open up if they don’t feel that the environment is safe and that they can trust the people hearing their stories,” says Fergus.

Zulu men, the most frequent – but not the only – perpetrators of violence, are struggling to deal with a new South African constitution that guarantees equality and liberal rights for women, ones that are at odds with apartheid’s patriarchal structuring of male-female roles. The migrant worker scenario also poses challenges for spousal relationships: if a woman asks that her migrant-worker husband use a condom when he comes home after weeks or months away, her request might be interpreted by her husband as implying that he had had other sexual partners, or that she herself had had other partners. In either case, the husband may take offense and become violent.

"I like to think that we’re contributing research to inform strategies that will help in the long term,” says Jolly.

“The relationship between HIV, gender-based violence and coercion is very close here,” says Jolly.

The women’s stories are often the most poignant and troubling. Poverty is such that, to support their family, women sometimes turn to “transactional sex” – a sort of barter that uses consensual sex as currency, as when a woman sleeps with a man in a position of power (such as her teacher) in exchange for money, food, or other commodities.

In some ways, these and a host in of other structural social problems mimic some conditions in Canadian native communities – which is why Jolly’s research team includes a group of Aboriginal observers from Canada. Their role is to take notes on the final stages of the project with an aim to assess the resulting intervention techniques for their applicability in the Canadian context.

“I don’t expect to see the problems in South Africa disappear in my lifetime,” says Jolly. “But you have to work towards that goal. I like to think that we’re contributing research to inform strategies that will help in the long term.”

Profile by Alec Ross
(e)Affect Issue 2, Fall 2012