Phinah Kodisang, CEO of Soul City Institute for Social Justice

“Even a response to COVID-19 needs to be a feminist one. It needs to centre women; it needs to centre adolescent girls; it needs to centre children”. 

Moderator: Tian Johnson

Complied by: Vivienne Naidoo with inputs from Anna Matendawafa


Webinar Recordings & Supplementary

Date: 14 January  2021

WHO Phinah Kodisang is the current CEO of the Soul City Institute for Social Justice. In this role, she leads strategic direction and accountability for the organisation’s programmatic, operational, and financial aspects. With a Master’s degree in social development and a passion for youth, Phinah has participated and contributed to different, national, regional and international panels on finding solutions to different issues faced by youth, such as HIV, GBV and other structural issues that perpetuate social injustice, especially for young women. Phinah is an outspoken gender activist. In her work at Soul City, she continues to raise awareness of issues facing women and young girls and advocate that those in positions of power be held accountable for their role in addressing these issues. She is a proud single mom of two – a daughter and a son and proudly wears the label, Feminist.

QUESTION AND ANSWERS *This section contains a transcribed account of the Question and Answer Session

What measures has Soul City had to take since the advent of COVID-19? How have you reconfigured, how have you innovated to ensure that the critical  issues of violence against women and girlsand gender-based violence remain on the agenda in a world where we live today, overwhelmed by noise of all kinds, on COVID-19?  

Young women used their voice to advocate for their safety and for their development submitted a letter to COGTA (Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs) on 04 December 2020. Allow me to read the letter that was submitted. It’s a long letter. I am not going to read all of it. I want to link to the part where I feel young women demonstrated that they want their rights to be protected. They want to be heard, and they want action to be taken. Action not only where we are concerned about how many people are going to access vaccine, how many people are testing but not forgetting that even in this pandemic, the rise of young women is still important. They still have a right to be protected. So allow me to read a paragraph from that letter which was submitted to minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma on 04 December by young women. I quote what they are saying they are saying “we are not seen. We are not held. We are not recognised. Our agency is not recognised in any development process. Street lighting is a critical development intervention that many municipalities can deliver with ease. This small intervention will go a long way in contributing to our safety in communities.” They go on to note how the cost of corruption which is at the centre. These resources are not being availed. The IDP is a process where local municipalities budget for things like street lighting. They note with concern that these processes are affected by corruption, therefore denying young women the right to access safety. Safety is provided by just having a street light so that when they move in their communities, they move in a visible area, not darkness. So they are also saying in the second paragraph that they are asking for opportunities to be created for them to contribute to strengthening service delivery, oversight and other processes at the local municipality level, including how COVID 19 is addressed at local municipalities. Where is the platform where women are called to say, what are your needs? Even in this pandemic? Where are we failing you? Where are we not meeting your needs as young women? They were writing to say to the Minister, we want action to be taken on something that we as young people are seen, we are heard, and we are recognised for the agency we have and the skills we can contribute to solving some of these problems. So one of the things that I think is critical and Soul City takes very seriously, is the issue of accountability. I think we don’t hold each other accountable enough. The government sometimes blames the lack of resources. Civil society sometimes blames a lack of action from the I would like to challenge all of us to say, can we go back to the drawing board and look at how are we holding each other to account when COVID-19 happened, the rights to education were affected. Some of the women have not gone back to school. Some of them are now statistics in terms of trade. They are now is the statistic in terms of pregnancy. We seem to ignore some of our issues in terms of statutory rape. For me, I think that is one of the big things where we are comfortable to note that 10 to 15-year-olds have given birth in the past 12 months. But we know that it’s a violation. Its statutory rape. Who takes action, who is held accountable when such happens? We know that even the sexual violence rates went up that Minister … reported on last year, we know there’s inaccuracy in those reports, but we can’t ignore it even if it’s 1%. Even if it’s one individual, we can’t ignore the fact that violation of young women sexual violence in violation of young women in South Africa is within the bigger pandemic of COVID-19. And our efforts have not yet yielded results. As Soul City, we call on everybody to start looking at what is your response? What are you doing as an individual, as an organisation, as government? What are we doing on our media pages, we post a lot about actions that people can take to take care of themselves in this pandemic. We encourage normalising, asking for help if you feel overwhelmed. That is still something that we are not pushing in solidarity together for solutions towards achieving this eradication of gender-based violence. So we need to stand together. It’s not lost to us, that there are efforts and we must give credit, but I don’t think we must celebrate we are not yet where we can say we are celebrating I for one am not yet celebrating because I am a woman. I can be a statistic any time, you know. So what are we doing? Can the pandemic not be an excuse for us not to take action. So there’s a lot that we are doing to contribute our voice to this. We’ve just recently had a TV talk show on SABC to an eight-part talk show, which was mainly around looking at patriarchy is a system that must be dismantled. Until we dismantle patriarchy until we call it out for what it is and until people who are enjoying the benefits of having this system, people who are benefiting from having this system that is unjust to the majority of people in this country. Women of this country are in their diversities until we dismantle it, we will keep talking about the same things repeatedly. So I want us to look at what can be done to dismantle patriarchy. It’s a huge system. So we know, you can’t just don’t collapse in one day. There must be a starting point. And there must be somewhere where we say, done and dusted. This one is now complete. Let’s move to the next one. We are not yet there what is stopping us. Each time the President addresses the country, he will talk about, gender-based violence is a pandemic, let’s do our part to contribute to solutions. But I see it every time and wonder, why is it that other things we can solve? Why is it that with a crime report given there were crimes that the Minister and his team were able to report as going down, but sexual violence, gender-based violence, femicide keeps going up? Where is this thing coming from? Have we interrogated it? Why is it hard to do that? To dismantle this gender-based violence and femicide and the benefits to whoever is benefiting from this thing. So I wonder, where, this year 2021, with the pandemic, as rough as it is, people are dying right now, you know, people are scared. But over and above that women are scared. If a man is scared of dying because of COVID-19, a woman is scared of being raped, contracting COVID-19 trying to get treatment, but on her way, maybe to even go to the clinic and being violated, might even lose her life. So women are scared of so many other layered things, while men are only scared of contracting it and probably dying from it. So we need to do something we are failing women. And the work that we do associate with a young woman with different partners is to say, what next, we can’t sit until we see solutions, programmes that are there they are there to just look at the temporal solution. During lockdown level one, we were supporting Rise Up Against Gender-Based Violence. As an organisation, we supported them in terms of some of the food parcels. Again, at the centre of these pandemics, women, young women, and children suffered, and we supported their effort. But even in doing that, we were saying this is a temporary measure. It’s for now; it’s to make sure that they are not hungry now. But how are they going to get out of that cycle? Economic development is slow across the country. But women are the most affected, and education I mentioned earlier, again, rights that are being violated just a mere right to be protected by the state is something that we are not achieving. So the way we do calls for all of us to take arms, and I use the word arms because we are in a battle, we are in a fight. And I’m not inciting violence. I’m not asking you to go and shoot or kill people. But I’m saying we are in a violent period of our lives as women. So we need to make sure that the state understands the dangers that we are in, and the solutions they’ve brought to the table have not had results. So are we going back to the drawing table? Are we going back to engaging? How are we engaging differently from how we’ve been engaging? So this year we are looking at it, it’s something that is in the pilot phase. We’ve done our feasibility study, and hopefully, we will be able to start rolling out. We are looking at a feminist Academy because we believe we need a feminist solution to our problems. I am not ignoring that COVID-19 is something we are dealing with even a response to COVID-19 needs to be a feminist response. It needs to centre women; it needs to centre adolescent girls; it needs to centre children. I’m not saying men are not important. Each time you start focusing on where attention is needed, most people come and say, but what about men? I’m not going to talk about men not because they are not important. I’m going to talk about where the problem is, and where the issue is. Men can have discussions with other men somewhere about what they feel is not happening; what should be happening. At Soul City it is about women, it’s young women, it’s children, we know that they’re the most vulnerable, the most affected. We need a feminist response, we need a response that is responsive to their needs, and the rights of women, even now, as vaccines are being lined up, we need to make sure that the distribution is equitable.  We need to make sure that those in spaces where they engage with government on distribution, or rolling out of vaccines, really speak on behalf of women and children. We know that we already live in an unequal society. We don’t want equality; we want an equitable response; women have been left behind for the longest time. So we need to bring them closer to where we close the gap, their mobility is reduced, and therefore there are spaces where their support is affected. So we need to find virtual solutions, psychosocial support, cannot be underestimated. It is needed. And women need those resources available to them. Maybe let me pause here and see if there are questions or if we can engage. 

What has your experience been in the development and realisation of theNSP for GBV(National Strategic Plan for Gender Based Violence)? 

Yes, we know that the National Strategic Plan for Gender-Based Violence and Femicide is there. And as an organisation, we also participated, and I believe in the six pillars of the NSP. I strongly believe that they represent our intentions in getting to the bottom of this pandemic. But can we admit that to implement that plan, resources are needed and where resources are needed is where we start seeing the division. There’s going to be a call for a grant to implement aspects of that NSP. As a society, we are going to be the people who are competing to access those resources. You know, there are already issues, I think, in our interactions with government, and civil society on even then, the engagements around that NSP. Some politics are issues, and that’s where we get stuck. So we would have beautiful documents, much like our Constitution, beautiful, you know, articulate in terms of what it aims to achieve. But implementation becomes a challenge because resources are at the centre of any implementation of a strategy or a policy of, you know, even the political will to get that NSP implemented the way it’s articulated.

What are your thoughts on what this plan presents? If you feel it presents anything?   

So I’m not saying it’s a hopeful situation. I’m saying that divisions always come when we now need to implement because then who do you give resources? All of us are intervening, according to our different strengths. Some do psychosocial support, and some do support groups. Some are making sure that the police are doing their job, there are policymakers. The law – we don’t even have the law to support the implementation of the NSP. I think it’s a missing gap. It’s something that is missing because if nothing happens, you can take no one to court, it said, they contravened what has been passed as law in terms of implementing the NSP. Honestly, we work two steps forward, and I believe ten steps back because we are not moving in tandem, we’re not moving in solidarity. And I’m not saying we are not united. I sit in some spaces, where every day we are talking about what next? How are we going to do this? What can we do? Our efforts are watered down by the lack of commitment in terms of the law. Also, the lack of resources to make sure that every essential part is a piece of a puzzle, each piece of a puzzle, builds this full picture. So some of the time where resources are now critical. They don’t have resources; you have those that are overly resourced; you have those that are under-resourced those that are not even resourced. So how do you then implement an NSP to its best? 

There is the issue of power, issues of ego, agendas, and the issue of resourcing and funding. We package and present ourselves as different formations within civil society, in part to be palatable to donors, in part to do the work we’re passionate about. Would you characterise South African civil society today as unified?  

I think we are unified in understanding that we are facing the same issues. We know what monster we are facing. And we know how to defeat that monster, where we can start showing solidarity is how we then collectively challenge donors. We need to get to a point where we go to donors and begin changing the donors’ agenda. There’s a lot of imperialism that comes with the funding. It’s very imperialistic in its approach. It’s money that comes from overseas, and it comes with a specific agenda. And we fall into the trap of adapting, as you say, to make ourselves palatable to that agenda. If we push back and say, in South Africa, the money will come in for this, this, this and that, instead of being told, we have money for this, sometimes some of the money, a lot of money, a lot of investment goes to where the meat is no longer, higher, you know, where there’s a dire need of resources. So solidarity would be to strengthen the pushback. If we say, there’s no funder, who’s going to come and tell us we need to give the funders the mandate of what the funding should be directed towards, because we are the ones on the ground, we are the ones who know what the needs are on the ground. But a lot of time we find ourselves having to adjust our programmes, so even when we know that as an organisation, we want a feminist agenda, you want to push a feminist response, if funders don’t want to hear the word feminist anywhere we remove the identity, we adapt the intervention so that they don’t sound too feminist because then we know, we won’t get the grant. We need to get to a point where we now start giving a mandate to where the resources must be directed through our own resources that we co-create with our South African government. 

How do we make sure that young, young girls and women access Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights(SRHR) services, especially in the context of COVID-19?  

This is where the Department Of Education needs to be called out. A year or two ago, with standard operating procedure(SOP), around how young people spend a lot of their time even with COVID-19 young people still access schools, they still go to school, whether they go on rotation,  with some they go every day. Young people are in schools, most of the time, and we could use those spaces to provide the services. And I know education will tell you schools are for teaching. Yes. But young people are not just individuals who receive education, but the other needs are not existing, even in parallel to their need for education. Have we explored how we can use the school environment without disrupting learning and teaching to provide these services to avoid long queues in the clinics that are already under-resourced, overwhelmed, and now with this pandemic, creating even stricter restrictions on how many people a day can access clinics. Department of Education needs to come back to the debate table around how and the fact that young people spend six, seven hours of their time in that space can be used effectively, to provide the sexual reproductive health and rights services that are needed by young people. 

Touching on an important point in the chat is speaking about the vaccine, what work are we doing to ensure that women and young girls are not left behind again?  

 I have not personally participated in any forums here. But I want to believe that now that the President has said, there’s a plan, in terms of the roll-out, we will start engaging because of course, we want to make sure that once the roll-out is clearly laid out, young women are not left behind. So I will ask colleagues like Steve Letsike who I think might have more information to engage us on what is being done through SANAC South African National Aids Council, to see if SANAC is playing any role there, we would want to make sure that we advocate for young people, young women not to be left behind. We try not to find ourselves trapped in all these conspiracy theories around vaccines; we need to get it out of the way because it becomes a disturbance in terms of engaging meaningfully with young women about the importance of accessing those vaccines. So conversations that will happen will need to one, talk about address these issues on the site, the noise that is being made, and facts to be presented to young people about what the vaccine will do, and how they can access it. 

What do you view as the biggest threat to women and young girls in the next year in the context of your work? 

 The biggest threat will always be patriarchy because patriarchy is an enabler of violation of human rights. So while we know what our rights are, and we can even list them one by one, we have a system that denies us access to those rights. So the biggest threat for us as young women is patriarchy. And the only thing that we can do, to get young women to enjoy their rights is to dismantle this system, as I indicated earlier, one step at a time because it’s a big elephant. It will need to be taken down chunk by chunk with everybody, civil society, government individuals, and noting what role they need to play, to make sure that we dismantle the system that enables a teacher to rape a student and still get away with it. Because when you engage a school principal, they tell you, this is the best Maths teacher we have. This school cannot afford to lose this teacher. Can we solve it amicably amongst ourselves, where parents will accept somebody bringing, you know, 500 or 1000, to apologise that our son violated your child forgetting that the girls live with the pain and the scars forever? If we don’t dismantle the systems that enable the perpetration of violence and are entrenched in patriarchy, we are not going anywhere.

Please touch on the single biggest opportunity in the next 12 months, where we can make progress.  

There are opportunities to educate and teach young women about what their rights are, which is important. They now realise that they are their agency to take action is important, as part of getting to where they want their futures to be they need to take action. But I think the opportunity comes in creating an environment that dismantles the power of patriarchy. And I’ll tell you why I’m saying that so most of our empowerment programmes concentrate on giving young women resources, knowing where to go, and knowing what to do, but we are not dealing with what disempowers them. So we are empowering them. But we are not addressing those things that disempower them. So I have the knowledge, I know where to go, when I’m right, I know what to do when I’m worried. But that knowledge does not prevent somebody from raping me. So I still get raped with the knowledge of what I can do, once I’m raped, you know, or what I can do to try and prevent myself from being in spaces that can bring me harm. All that knowledge, all that empowerment is useless, if the system that continues to support perpetration is not dealt with. So we have an opportunity to bring that balance to say, on the one hand, let’s continue empowering young women. Let’s continue creating an enabling environment for them to thrive and live their lives to the fullest. But let’s not forget that a huge responsibility that we collectively have to make sure that we are going to address toxic masculinity, we are going to make sure that the curriculum in school makes sure that young men understand that you need consent for you to have sex with a young woman, it doesn’t matter what she was wearing. It doesn’t matter whether you thought her smiling back at you meant she said she wants to have sex with you, we need to make sure that we address those issues. The opportunity here is to look at innovative ways since all the methods we’ve been doing have not yielded good results. There are some results but not excellent results. What are the opportunities we have with changing how we are teaching boys? What are the opportunities we have with really bringing stricter punishment for violation? What are the opportunities that are there? There are so many that we can take. So let’s look at where can we start. Where is the best-starting place and start doing something that matters.