Reaching a hard-to-reach community

Sonke Gender Justice

I sat down with Micheline Muzaneza, a trainer on Sonke’s Refugee Health and Rights project, to discuss the team’s recent success in running a workshop with Somalians in Cape Town. Somalis are a hard-to-reach community, especially when it comes to issues of sex (and safe sex), gender and power.

Micheline: Since I started my work with refugees and migrants, in most communities it has been easy to talk about HIV, AIDS, gender and human rights. When it comes to Somalis and we go to Home Affairs and explain our work, they listen, but when we talk about condoms, HIV and gender they just reject us. They are ready to hear about human rights, refugee rights, their papers, their status, how long it takes, and so on. But we were not welcome to talk about HIV and AIDS and gender. For them, a woman must stay in the kitchen, and look after the children – and a woman does not have any say in front of men.

When we were doing 16 Days of Activism in 2010, we went to Bellville. We wanted to run a workshop with Somali women in Bellville so we asked some Somali men if they could send their women, but they did not agree. The few women who came, their men were sitting somewhere close just to see what we are telling their women. So the women were not free to express themselves.

It was difficult to work in that community. But now, there is an organisation that I met with, SASA (Somali Association in South Africa), who support what we do, and there are a few men who are aware of the abuse and the risk of HIV in their community. They have the courage to speak out about it and break the silence in their community, so we are working with them. I spoke to SASA and we arranged a workshop for 21 and 22 February.

Still it is difficult for me. Because I am a woman I could not freely talk in front of Somalian men but I was trying my best. I was not allowed to wear any clothes that I want, like pants, I can’t go talk to them wearing pants. So I must dress like you can see in these pictures. I was dressing like a Muslim, and I am not Muslim. It was just to introduce myself in that community, to let them understand the message that I bring. So through my appearance, my body language, they are not going to pick up any negativity. For now, because it’s still the beginning and I am still learning them, I will dress the way they want, but when I am used to that community I will show them that we have the freedom to wear what we want. They were impressed and they listened to me, and they were very happy with the message we were giving to them, and they didn’t know most of the information we gave them about HIV and AIDS. But to show them a condom, it is taboo. In their culture, they don’t use condoms; they don’t even want to touch a condom. We knew that from before so we didn’t take any to the workshop. By the end, though, we saw that they might have been interested.

There were 34 people at the workshop, but on the first day, only three were women. Apparently they were scared of men. So now I have a strategy to have a group of women, then men, then bring them together.

“For now… I will dress the way they want, but when I am used to [them] I will show them that we have the freedom to wear what we want. “

On the second day of the workshop only one woman came, and then she just disappeared. There’s still that barrier between men and women but I think if we work with SASA, they can help us a lot to enter that community and explain to them about gender equality. At least there are a few who understand about gender issues. I explained to SASA what happened during 16 Days of Activism in Bellville so they said that they would help us have a talk with women, and that they would explain the situation to the men. I am still waiting for that to happen.

Still, It was a very wonderful workshop. I did it with Papy. We showed them that women and men can work together, and give good examples.

Language barriers

During the workshop they brought some issues that Somalis are facing here – mainly the language barriers at the hospital. They are having difficulty communicating with nurses at the hospital. Then some Somalis become irritated because they cannot communicate, and then Somalians are seen as troublemakers, but the bottom of the problem is language.

Even during the workshop, the few women that came, when I asked them, can you tell us what you think, they said, “No, we are not allowed to speak in front of men. Just let men talk.” So women they didn’t talk in the workshop. But those men who want to break the silence, they said, “No, you also have to say something, we don’t know what is happening, you must speak.”

So some of the women did eventually speak, explaining the difficulties they have at the hospital when they go to give birth, and when they are taking their children. They all speak Somali but some of them can speak Swahili too, because they have been in camps in Tanzania and Kenya. So at the workshops I was communicating in Swahili, and they asked us at Sonke if we could help them with interpreters at the hospital.

At the workshop, there were some who didn’t believe in HIV and AIDS, that HIV is not there – one man said that you don’t have to use a condom. Another interesting thing – I asked them about LGBTI in their community – how gay or lesbian people are living. For them it’s categoric – if you are gay, and you can see that you are gay, you have to be killed. So you must hide that you are gay. I told them that some people are born gay. But they said even if you are born like that you must hide yourself otherwise they will kill you. And they were serious. They believe that it’s evil and they don’t want evil in their community. During the workshop they said that, and when I was distributing condoms today at the door-to-door they repeated the same thing. So I think Somalians, they need education on LGBTI. Also when we train them we should give them a session where we will talk about LGBTI, to see if they can accept a person, because it is each and everyone’s choice.

Another thing that is strange for them is when we said that men and women are equal. During the session that Papy did, ‘Act like a man, act like a woman’, they said that women must submit to men, and that the Koran said so. Papy was challenging them, “Who said so? Were you there? I need to know!” but they said, “It’s like that – the way he created us, we are different.” And they said women are like children, so if she does not listen to you when you tell her something today, tomorrow, you are keeping on repeating, then you must beat her. Then she will understand, she will remember, and next time she won’t do it.

Then Papy asked, “What about you? If you do something one day, the second day, so she must also… beat you?” They laughed at that! They were laughing and they were trying to convince Papy that we are not equal. But some of them understand, we are equal, we don’t have to beat women and they were engaging the others in discussion about it.


Today I did a door-to-door campaign in Mitchell’s Plain with Saint-Expedit, who also works on Sonke’s Refugee Health and Rights project. Many Somalis live in that area. After the workshop, we felt it would be okay to distribute condoms, so we gave out 2,600 condoms today!

Somalians are there so we went there and we explained to them. Yes, some they understand but some… they are still… it’s a long process that we have to do. We also ask women to speak out about what is happening but they said it’s difficult for them. So they were asking if we could have a support group for women, and for men, then to see how we can bring all of them together.

Some women took the courage and said they wanted to volunteer with us, and some men too. So we need to make a plan to train CAT members in their community. It will be better to have some of them helping in our activities then they can also speak their languages to participants. SASA organises a number of soccer teams with young Somalis, and they are willing to work with us to train some of the youth so that they can pass on the message in schools.

We’re seeing the beginning of big things. Congratulations to Micheline and the Cape Town RHR team for all their hard work and persistence in reaching this community.