The power of needlework: how embroidery tells unspeakable stories of gender-based violence

In June 2020, three months after South Africa entered the first of a series of hard lockdowns to slow the spread of Covid-19, President Cyril Ramaphosa described men’s violence against women as a “second pandemic”.

In the first three weeks of that lockdown, the Gender-based Violence Command Centre, designed to support victims of gender-based violence (GBV), recorded more than 120 000 victims. Also in its 2019/2020 crimes statistics, the South African Police Service indicated that an average of 116 rape cases were reported each day.

South Africa’s GBVcrisis is not new. However, it was worsened by the pandemic, which made challenges faced by many women and gender non-conforming individuals hyper visible.

This visibility sheds light on the reality that the home is a complex space, where care and violence can coexist. Women can feel simultaneously safe and in danger in their homes. All of this happens behind closed doors, often robbing women of a voice to express their fear, suffering and pain. That affects more than just individual women: GBV is a collective, structural challenge. When women are violated in their homes, this affects familial relations, productivity at work and overall societal functioning.

I am a psychologist who wanted to harness the power of visual artistic expression to highlight the multi-layered ways in which gendered violence is woven into everyday encounters. To do so, I turned – as I have done in previous research – to embroidery.

For this work, I visually tell the narrative of GBV in colourful and creative ways, paying attention to moments of encounters where those who perpetrate and those against whom the violence is perpetrated appear in the same frame. The visual artwork invites the viewer to witness. The hope is that beyond the witnessing is a call for action.


Everyday violence

An embroidery depicts a woman with blue hair, her eyes wide and frightened and her mouth covered by another person’s hand.

Through depicting their lived experiences of gender trauma, women can have an outlet for their pain. While their embroideries serve as a canvas for the outpouring of pain, loss and trauma, their work also tells stories of hope, resilience, and resistance.

For this research I worked with the Intuthuko women’s collective. The group consists of 16 black women based in one of the townships in Ekurhuleni, Gauteng.

GBV in SA continues to affect black women disproportionately – a reality rooted in history as well as in the present systems.

The idea of this project was to let the visuals do the talking. During the process of making the embroideries, we would share stories of how GBV affects our communities, reflecting on the need to use these embroideries as a form of awareness-raising, tool for community dialogues, and to challenge the patriarchal system that has rendered the world unsafe for women.


Perpetual fear

The embroideries depict a society where fear is manufactured, created and produced by patriarchal and unjust structural violent systems. This in turn leads to women living in perpetual fear; they cannot feel safe within and outside of their homes.

Some embroideries featured women being violated and robbed in public places, reduced to kneeling for mercy. An embroidery depicts a male figure groping a woman in a street alongside some houses. She is raising her hand to object.

Feeling unsafe, and in a constant state of fear, makes it difficult for many women to exercise their agency: when society is structured in ways that make women victims, patriarchy prevails.


Staring reality in the face

These embroideries are not just pieces of visual art. They are a challenge to the viewer to stare the violence in the face with the hope that they will be compelled to reflect and to act. The embroideries have been displayed at an art exhibition where the public could attend and engage with the pieces.


  • The article, written by Segalo, chair of the Chief Albert Luthuli Research, Unisa, first appeared in The Conversation

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