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A few weeks ago, we were tasked with the responsibility to create a presentation for an upcoming sexual harassment training for our community action team members (CATs) who are our point-persons within the townships and areas surrounding Cape Town. Covering the definitions and nuances behind sexual assault, sexual harassment, and consent, our goal was to begin a conversation and an awareness behind these forms of gender-based violence. Due to the fact that most of the members are refugees who come from cultures where domestic violence and harassment are even more of a norm, many of them had never heard the information regarding South African laws against sexual harassment. For this reason, the training was rockier than I expected.

From the get-go, our ice-breaker did not go as planned. We decided to do the “Privilege Walk” activity, where a statement is read and people move a step forward or backward if they identify and stand still if they don’t. The diction of our statements fully fell flat. The fact that English was not their first language compiled with this being the first time they were hearing about sexual harassment in this way made it so that none of the statements translated as they were meant to. When asked to step back if they felt as though they felt discrimination based on their gender, the only individuals who backed up were men along with my female supervisor. Evidently, we did not choose our words carefully enough. I found myself trying to explain these statements in terms they would understand more easily, but it added more confusion than anything else. Though the activity didn’t go nearly as planned, it was a learning experience. Through the discomfort of battling through the language barrier, I was reminded of the importance of intentional diction—the best word in my mind may not be the best word for my audience.

And then sometimes it’s not about saying the right thing, it’s about not saying anything at all—keeping your mouth shut. Despite every urge in my body, I did just that throughout the discussions. As I’ve mentioned, it was the first time these CATs had a workshop surrounding sexual harassment, so when the topics of consent or man-to-man harassment came up, they were not taken as the serious issues they are. Men started to get defensive about the issue of consent, making jokes about how often to ask “if this is okay” while having sex. I felt my face getting increasingly hot and tingly, equal parts anger and discomfort boiling up inside of me. These physiological reactions to the situation were only intensified when other men in the room laughed in agreement, even some of the women egged it on. This laughter occurred even as we were talking about sexual harassment and assault between males, which makes sense because it’s not as commonly talked about as male to female, but still I was visibly disconcerted. Even as a participant in the training was describing an experience when he was sexually assaulted by a man, there was laughter in the room. The participant himself even started the story laughing; it was almost as though he realized the gravity of the incident as he was recounting it. I know that laughter is oftentimes a reaction to discomfort, but it only agitated me further.

While explaining all of my reactions and sentiments to my supervisor, she eased my frustration, reminding me of the positive change that does come from starting these conversations. She explained that the participants would now have the topic on their minds, which is not an insignificant result. She also told me to keep in mind that, as our volunteers, these participants were the most “woke” about social issues and gender inequality in their communities—a reality which made me tense right back up.

I know that people aren’t born knowing about these issues and these conversations don’t exist everywhere. Most cultures are—to some extent—built on the same norms that perpetuate this kind of gender-based violence. I just do hope that the training did, in fact, change something in the participants’ mindsets regarding sexual violence and that they pass on the information in their communities. Because, even though I was uncomfortable due to the backwards comments I was hearing, that workshop was the first real, progressive conversation they’d had on these issues. It’s almost like we were living in two different worlds, largely because we are.