Gender, violence, and sexuality: Collaborations for social justice at the intersection of academia, activism, and art

Written by Ruari-Santiago McBride, Zenande Dlamini, Mzwakhe Khumalo, John Marnell, and Susann Huschke.

On Tuesday 23 May 2017, we held a symposium entitled ‘Gender, Violence, and Sexuality: Collaborations for social Justice at the Intersection of Academia, Activism, and Art’ at the School of Public Health, University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), in Johannesburg, South Africa. The symposium was organised to coincide with the launch of the Know My Story’ book, an open-access publication that showcases and reflects upon a participatory research project examining the lived experiences of sex workers in Soweto, South Africa (Huschke 2017). The event brought together approximately sixty academics, activists, artists, students, and journalists to discuss the violence experienced by women, sex workers, and members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, queer and/or intersex (LGBTQI) community, and to reflect on how art can serve as a conduit for social activism to challenge these everyday injustices. While the event focused on interventions and projects conducted within the South African context, it raised critical questions of universal relevance: how can art be used to provoke personal reflection and community dialogue around issues of gender, sexuality, and violence? What ethical issues arise as a consequence of participatory research methods? And, how do those who combine research and activism negotiate the challenges and contradictions of their privileged positionality?

The symposium was introduced by Lenore Manderson (Wits) who commented on the value of bringing academics, activists, and artists together in order to stimulate debate, and introduced the three presentations. The first speakers were Mzwakhe Khumalo (Sonke Gender Justice) and Ruari-Santiago McBride (Wits), who shared experiences from the CHANGE Trial, a community mobilisation intervention seeking to transform male gender norms and reduce violence against women in a periurban community on the outskirts of Johannesburg (Hatcher et al. 2017). Khumalo and McBride reflected on how public murals can serve as a tool for social activism and health promotion by raising awareness about and stimulating action to fight violence against women. The second presentation discussed the ebbs and flows of the Know My Story project, a participatory arts-based research project on sex work in Soweto. Zenande Dlamini (a participant in the Know My Story project) and Susann Huschke (Wits) highlighted the personal and collective value sex workers associated with participation in the project, and also issues pertaining to consent and ownership. The final presentation was given by John Marnell (Wits/Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action) who talked about art as a method for both activism and research (see also Marnell and Khan 2016). Marnell posed a number of challenging questions regarding the definition and ethics of participatory, arts-based methods and emphasised the value of process over outputs.

The presentations stimulated a passionate discussion among a set of panelists, chaired by Jo Vearey (Wits). Particular issues raised involved the need to ‘conscientise’ men’ around issues of gender equality and to encourage them to contribute to ending violence against women.[note 1] The need to amplify critical research evidence widely was highlighted, with visual and non-visual artefacts described as mediums that can disseminate findings beyond the confines of academia. The potential of participatory methods to produce potent cultural artefacts that can be used for advocacy and activism was said to be curbed by biomedical and positivist ethical frameworks and restrictive institutional ethics review boards. This led to a conversation regarding the tension between research norms of anonymity and individuals’ rights to confidentiality, on the one hand, and visual advocacy strategies and community-led activism, on the other hand. Sex worker activists highlighted the therapeutic benefits of participatory research, while some academics cautioned researchers on overstating the therapeutic potential of research. Another topic touched upon was the potential of burnout among academics, activists, and artists struggling for social justice and the importance of self-care.

The symposium closed with a reception and an exhibition of artwork from the ‘Know My Story’ project. On display were twenty-four portraits of sex workers, which were taken by a professional photographer and then anonymised by the sex workers in collaboration with artists. The artwork was thus a visual manifestation of the themes raised during the symposium, particularly the tension between the desire to challenge stigmatisation and stereotypical images of sex workers and ethical requirements regarding anonymity (see also Huschke 2017).

About the authors

Ruari-Santiago McBride is a postdoctoral research fellow at the School of Public Health, University of Witwatersrand. His research interests sit at the intersection of gender, health, and justice. Zenande Dlamini is a counselor, peer educator, and sex worker rights activist. She is currently studying for a nursing diploma. Mzwakhe Khumalo has worked for Sonke Gender Justice for seven years on a number of programmes working with men and boys to address gender-based violence and HIV prevention. Currently he is team manager on the Sonke Change Trial Sonke, a cluster randomised trial evaluating the effectiveness of a community mobilisation and education intervention on reducing intimate partner violence in Diepsloot, South Africa. John Marnell is the publications and communications coordinator at Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action, South Africa, and is also a visiting researcher at the African Centre for Migration & Society. Susann Huschke is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of the Witwatersrand and a visiting research fellow at Queen’s University Belfast. Her research explores issues related to sex work, gender, health, and migration.


Hatcher, Abigail, Dumisani Rebombo, Ruari-Santiago McBride, Angelica Pino, Mwzakhe Khumalo, Dean Peacock, and Nicola Christofides. 2017. Violence against Women in an Informal Settlement. Evidence brief. Johannesburg: Sonke Gender Justice.

Huschke, Susann, ed. 2017. Know My Story: A participatory Arts-Based Project. Johannesburg: African Centre for Migration Studies.

Marnell, John, and Gabriel H. Khan. 2016. Creative Resistance: Participatory Methods for Engaging Queer Youth. Johannesburg: Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action.

This post was first published on the Medicine Anthropology Theory blog; Gender, violence, and sexuality: Collaborations for social justice at the intersection of academia, activism, and art (on 20 October 2017).