Taking on South Africa’s Femicide Crisis: The Unique Approach of the Township Caravan

4 min read

On a frigid morning in Johannesburg, a woman navigates her way through muddy streets to a bare-bones clinic on the outskirts of a township. Despite the weak January sun, Regina Somo wears a floral dress, bright red lipstick, and a beaming smile. She walks past a herd of goats grazing at the clinic gates and makes for a converted shipping container tucked behind a tree. Inside is a therapy room where Somo greets three other women and a counselor, who have braved the weather for the weekly gathering. “Before, I wouldn’t have come,” Somo says. She means overcoming not just the flooded roads but her far more debilitating mental hurdles, brought on by her experiences at the hands of her abusive partner. “But now I know, no matter what, I must come, because I will feel better when I leave.” The others, some meeting one another for the first time, smile and nod in agreement. This shipping container-turned group therapy office is one part of a project that uses creative therapeutic approaches to aid women, families, and entire communities in overcoming gender-based violence (GBV). Deeply ingrained in homes, workplaces, and culture in South Africa, women there are five times more likely to die at the hands of a partner than the global average. Phola, which means to “heal” or “cool down” in southern Africa’s Nguni languages, was founded by Zimbabwean psychologist Ncazelo Ncube-Mlilo, and is rooted in the belief that people affected by adversity, abuse, and trauma have the knowledge and skills to overcome their problems. Its projects aim to aid women, men, and children in Johannesburg’s most deprived and violent townships. Using a traveling caravan or permanent shipping containers fitted as therapy rooms, the charity aims to make therapy accessible for all. They host drive-throughs and popup events for women, men’s groups that tackle the root causes of violence and abuse, and school programs that work to break the cycle of trauma for the next generation. These crucial services are urgently needed, as rates of mental illness in South Africa are more than double those in Brazil, a comparable middle-income country. This is despite it boasting an average of 360 mental health workers per 100,000 people – far above the global median of 13, according to the World Health Organization. Extensive research has shown that unresolved childhood trauma is a serious mental health risk for children and a root cause of violence. Many survivors of GBV experience depression and are at higher risk for suicide, but only a quarter of South Africans experiencing depression and anxiety receive mental health care, a study found last year. And people living in poverty and experiencing poor mental health are at an increased risk of remaining trapped in their situation. When the project began in 2016, it started with Ncube-Mlilo and her colorful caravan parking up in the heart of the communities that needed her most. These days, Phola has a staff of 22 and Ncube-Mlilo spends much of her time training international professionals in her methods that are now used in 40 countries. But for the next hour, over the roar of rain pelting the roof, she and a counselor trained by Phola listen attentively as the women share their stories. For many, these sessions are the only time they feel able to discuss their feelings in an environment that’s safe – both physically and emotionally. It was here Phindi Ngele (pictured in the opening image), a single mother, was first able to articulate that her depression was pushing her to the brink. “I was alive but I wasn’t living,” she says. And when Somo recalls leaving her abusive partner, the room erupts with cheers of support. In Johannesburg’s townships, Phola is tackling the root causes of gender-based violence, from unresolved trauma to the ongoing legacy of apartheid.

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