LAWRENCE — Hannah Britton got her first taste of anti-apartheid activism in South Africa while still a college student.
“I went there as apartheid was ending in 1990,” said Britton, a University of Kansas professor in the departments of Political Science and Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies. “The country was in transition. There was still government violence, but negotiations and elections were happening.
"This struggle involved everyone. And it was hard to foresee it ending as well as it did.”
Three decades later, she has published “Ending Gender-Based Violence: Justice and Community in South Africa” (University of Illinois Press). The book chronicles successes and challenges of service providers, activists and leaders trying to address violence against women in South Africa. Britton hopes past lessons learned can now be applied to ending this worldwide problem.
“One of the biggest misconceptions is it can’t be fixed, because it can,” she said. “That’s what the stories in the book tell us. This is not some sort of problem that will continue forever. We can make choices as individual communities and governments to stop this.”
Britton’s book notes how the escalating presence of women in South Africa’s political system has led to legislation bolstering women’s rights. Yet the professor asserts that arrests and punishments fail to deal with the root of the issue. Instead, community dynamics are crucial.
“One surprising thing I found was that in communities having success in addressing gender-based violence, the police were centrally involved,” she said. “The police historically — and currently — in South Africa face many challenges of corruption, legitimacy and violence themselves. So understanding they are a key partner was really eye-opening.”
She says such involvement must also apply to religious leaders from all different faith backgrounds. Strong leadership coupled with economic opportunities, anti-violence organizations and domestic violence resources have made a dent in the problem.
“There is a need for infrastructure. And that can happen at the community level, but it also has to involve policymakers, funding and resources,” she said.
Britton has written other books on similar topics, including “Women’s Activism in South Africa: Working Across Divides” (2009) and “Women in the South African Parliament: From Resistance to Governance” (2005). This is her first book that she didn’t initially base on previously published articles.
“The thing I’m most proud of in this book is I worked very hard to make sure I had more narratives represented,” she said. “I wanted to highlight the voices of service providers and community leaders. That’s hard to maintain. And there are always pressures to cut and cut. I was fortunate to have a press that allowed me to include extensive narratives to ensure people’s voices are heard.”
The cover features the image of a striking blue dress sewn from blue plastic bags. It’s a tribute by artist Judith Mason to Phila Ndwandwe, a member of the African National Congress. Murdered by South African police in 1988, she was located years later buried with remnants of a blue plastic bag she was using as makeshift underwear.
On the dress’ hem, Mason wrote a letter to Ndwandwe: “Sister, a plastic bag may not be the whole armor of God, but you were wrestling with flesh and blood, and against powers, against the rulers of darkness, against spiritual wickedness in sordid places.”
“I cried the minute I saw it, as most people do,” said Britton of viewing the dress, which hangs inside the Constitutional Court of South Africa in Johannesburg.
“It represents how far we’ve come, how much farther we need to go and how we must acknowledge the legacy and violence of apartheid while continuing to move forward.”
Now in her 15th year at KU, Britton’s research focuses on gender and African politics. In addition to her dual departmental roles, she is also the director of the Center for the Study of Injustice at KU’s Institute of Policy & Social Research. Here, she coordinates KU's Anti-Slavery and Human Trafficking Initiative (ASHTI), a working group of faculty and students engaged in teaching and research about slavery.
“You can’t look at domestic violence in a vacuum. Just like you can’t look at human trafficking in a vacuum. You can’t look at intimate partner violence or child abuse in a vacuum,” Britton said.
“These things occur in a system. How they are addressed and prevented is not on a case-by-case basis. Sure, you have to work with individuals, but at the same time these individuals occur in a community, and communities make choices. When policymakers consider this a priority, things change.”
Top photo: iStock