Getting the conversation going

Sea Point resident Marthe Muller is the chief operations officer of SA Women in Dialogue.

In order to heal the soul and solve the issue of domestic abuse, we need to heal South African families.

These were the thoughts of Sea Point resident Marthe Muller, who is the chief operations officer of South African Women in Dialogue.

She said it was important to extend the conversation beyond just the 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children campaign.

Ms Muller believes that a lot of the problems we face are to do with violence. She said the aim of the organisation was to give women from all backgrounds a platform to speak about their challenges.

The first of these dialogues took place at the University of Pretoria in July 2003. Women representing all walks of life and various political parties took part. One of the founders of the NGO was Zanele Mbeki, wife of former president Thabo Mbeki. “What she wanted to do was to get a whole lot of powerful people together. She (Ms Mbeki) tried to get different political parties represented. She wanted to bring all women together so that women could say what their major issues were. It was about what we do next.”

What was beautiful about that first meeting, said Ms Muller, was that there was no protocol observed. “Ministers had to stand in line behind unemployed women. That is what characterised it, it was all about diversity. She wanted to bring together all South African women so they could also be a resource to women in other countries.”

An example of the inclusiveness of the first dialogue was that 60% of the women who took part were from rural areas and the women were from all nine provinces. “The major issue that remained was the issue of poverty eradication. It was about bringing women together and trying to find collaborative solutions.”

Ms Muller, who was based in Pretoria at the time, started as a volunteer at the organisation in 2003. Members of the organisation, including Ms Muller, visited Chile and Tunisia in 2006 to look at case studies.

“We came back and then trained young men and women as social auxiliary workers. We paid them for three years to work with families. That was our model and we’re still working on it. It was a family development model. The whole idea is we are trying to put the voices of women in places where they can make a difference,” said Ms Muller.

“I think it is incredibly important. Men are five times more likely to be killed by other men. Why don’t we see young men as vulnerable because they are also the victims of violence. It is an incredibly vulnerable situation to be a young, unemployed, previously disadvantaged man. Both men and women are oppressed by circumstances.”

She added that miscommunication between men and women was a big part of the problem. Also an issue was the effects of things like the legacy of apartheid and growing up without a father. “There is a link between humiliation and violence, we often don’t see that.”

Ms Muller added that it was important to get men involved in these kinds of dialogues.

“We are not taught as human beings to bring out the best in each other. Because there is such a focus on material things, we don’t focus on the souls of humans. I often write about the RDP of the soul that (former president) Mandela spoke about. Because all of us have been harmed by growing up in a certain society. It’s not surprising that men have excelled at all the bad things in society. It is clear that we are still in a process. The whole society has to evolve. Somehow our country ended up with patriarchal models all over the board, all races and all cultures. When men are brought up in the right process they flourish.”

She said that all spheres of government needed to spend some of its funding on family work.

“The focus on the family is the single most important thing that we need to do. The issue is that there is a lack of empathy and in South Africa there’s also subcultures that normalise violence and antisocial behaviour. All the violence against women comes from unmet needs. I see this tragedy of unmet human needs behind all the violence that happens.”

Ms Muller said that empathy was the first step as well as spending budgets on healing families. She said that between 2003 and 2009 members of government had been involved in dialogues.

“However, in the last few years there had not been much interaction. “We are the people we’ve been waiting for – that’s our message. It really starts and stops with oneself. We must become aware of what the root causes are in our own lives.”