The Gender Equity Office’s 2023 annual colloquium critically unpacked how the cultures we subscribe to reproduce harmful gender-based practices.  

The Wits Gender Equity Office (GEO) convened its second annual seminar, titled Gendering Culture, on July 26 and 27, a week before woman’s month, to promote dialogue and empowerment in gender equity. 

The two-day colloquium, through a series of workshops, delved into the theme of “gendering cultures”, which refers to the social expectation to play stereotypical gender roles. It also looks at how culture construct harmful gender roles and behaviours, which are passed from one generation to another.  

The seminars used dialogue, theatre performances and art installations to evoke strong feelings about how issues of safety, leadership, intimacy, power and success, are gendered.   

These conversations were part of the office’s intention to emphise their mandate of being a “thinking space” on issues of gender instead of only being a “police station”, said Thenjiwe Mswane the organisation’s education campaigns officer.  

The office, which was opened in 2013 has seen a significant increase in the last two years of reported cases, which Mswane attributes to the implementation of the advocacy office (that creates awareness of GBV related issues through different campaigns), and the increased visibility that it has created for the GEO. 

The opening session of the colloquium was an interactive Drama for Life performance, made up of six scenes, that demonstrated incidents of gendered experiences within particular social settings.  

Scene three which was titled Men’s Res, shows a fourth-year student during orientation week, instructing a first year to get him the cell phone numbers of two girls, or else there will be consequences. When the first-year student dares to ask why, he is asked “are you a man or are you a boy first year?”.  

Hamish Neill, project director at Drama for Life, explained that the theatrical performances were a good way to help audiences  understand what ‘gendering cultures’ look like “not in a static off the page way, where there is one person speaking of it, but by trying to get as close to it in action, in life, as it would be, in the phenomenon of itself”.   

The keynote speaker, Kholeka Shange, lecturer at the Wits anthropology department, discussed how institutions tend to write older black women out as “unproductive particularly in our labour-centric and profit orientated world”. She challenged that in fact older black women are repositories of a “survival wisdom, that we need to survive in this world that is often inhumane, oppressive and violent [to women].” 

The Deputy Vice Chancellor of people, development and culture, Garth Stevens, said that “there is great work to be done by offices like the GEO” especially in handling the rapid reproduction of harmful cultural practices that entrench gender-based harm.  

FEATURED IMAGE: Theatre producer Lebogang Tswelapele showed Hanging pieces of flesh at the GEO colloquium. The show is about the harmful cultural practice of forced female circumcision. Photo: Morongoa Masebe.