FACE TO FACE: Prof Naeemah Abrahams on breaking feminist stereotypes and “fighting through research and analyses”
Professor Naeemah Abrahams attended lectures for her Master’s degree in Public Health at the University of the Western Cape with a 10-day-old baby on her lap. It was 1996 and Abrahams was 35 years old.
At the time shifts were happening globally. In 1995, at the Fourth World Conference on Women hosted in Beijing, a new resolution on gender equality first recognised sexual reproductive health and freedom from violence as basic human rights.
Back then, South Africa’s new democratic dispensation brought new opportunities, which Abrahams seized with soft-spoken passion and resolve. She had pivoted from public hospital nursing into academia – laying the foundations for her career in feminism, the principles of which were playing out inside her very own home.
Sources of pride
Abrahams (62) is an honorary professor at the University of Cape Town (UCT’s) Faculty of Health Sciences, having worked in gender-based violence (GBV) for thirty years. Activism always underpinned her research, which has focused on post-rape care, intimate partner femicide, and the interface between GBV and HIV.
She heads the SAMRC’s Gender and Health Research Unit, which she co-founded as junior assistant to Professor Rachel Jewkes in 1994, a time that saw unsafe abortions and abortion legislation come under the spotlight. Today, the unit has 36 staff members, some based at offices in Pretoria and Durban.
Inside Abrahams’ office at the SAMRC’s Bellville campus, a table is covered in pamphlets and papers on women’s issues. Seated, she picks up an illustrated postcard that reads, “Destroy the patriarchy, not the planet” – created by Australian group, the Equality Institute.
“I love what they do [the Equality Institute]. I admire how they use social media,” says Abrahams. “They’re such good thinkers and speak truthfully to people and women’s experiences.”
She points out a black-and-white photograph of her holding her eldest daughter – a toddler back then. “My daughter was seven months old here,” she says. “We were attending a sexual reproductive health conference in Joburg. She flew up with me. Here we are sitting at the dinner. My second daughter was born about two years later. So I always say my first baby was my Master’s baby and the second one was my PhD baby.
“I could always work at night and I could travel because my husband is very supportive,” she says. “I’m lucky that I met somebody who wasn’t in competition with me for nothing. We agreed right at the beginning that it would be me building a career. I started having opportunities here at the SAMRC (South African Medical Research Council) to study, and so on. We both wanted to have kids. So, raised in a traditional Muslim family, my husband adjusted his work schedule to be the father who collected them and looked after them in the afternoons. He had a part-time job and in a sense was a stay-at-home dad.”
On the term “breadwinner” Abrahams says, “This is such a complex term – I don’t like being called the breadwinner. It is such a monetary way of looking at how families are constructed.”
She attributes much of her success to “luck”. Her hands folded on the table in front of her, she shyly relays a career highlight in September, when she was singled out from amongst 1 021 delegates at the Sexual Violence Research Initiative’s annual conference in Cancún, Mexico.
“It’s a wonderful conference,” says Abrahams. “Lots of capacity development opportunities, workshops, lots of new ideas. So, I’m uncomfortable bragging about myself, but at that conference, the very last session was about the people on whose shoulders we all stand. And I was one of them, one of four people who were singled out. Afterward, I realised how important it was for the South Africans present there, or anybody from Africa. To be able to say, you know, one of us was also recognised.” The other three scholars honoured on the day were Professor Jacquelyn Campbell of the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing in Maryland, Professor Mary Koss of the University of Arizona, and Dr García-Moreno, of the World Health Organization (WHO).
Another source of pride for Abrahams was providing input on Government’s National Strategic Plan [NSP] on Gender-Based Violence and Femicide, published in 2020. This followed widespread anti-GBV protests and the #TotalShutdown of August 1, 2018 – on Women’s Day – when some protestors were quoted as saying, “Women have nothing to celebrate this women’s month when we are dying at the rate that we are.”
Two years prior, in 2016, the WHO endorsed a global plan of action for public health systems to address violence against women and girls.
“For the very first time in 2018 there was big activism around GBV in South Africa,” Abrahams recalls. “And from that, government responded and started putting money into it for the first time; serious money and serious leadership. And over a year and a half of this, the National Strategic Plan was developed.”
The NSP document sets out to “collectively respond to this chronic crisis of gender-based violence and femicide towards a vision of a South Africa free from all forms of gender-based violence directed at all women, children, and LGBTQIA+ persons.”
Focus areas in the NSP include “the alarming lack of accountability for perpetration of GBVF by individuals, by the state, and society overall; the systemic inadequacies that result in the levels of vulnerability and a lack of safety; the largely ineffective and insensitive response to the needs of survivors; and the social norms, inequalities, and structural drivers that result in the high levels of GBVF the country is facing.”
“It’s a fantastic plan,” says Abrahams, “we’re very proud of it. Now, if only we can implement it. We have really good ideas in South Africa – it’s implementation that’s a problem. So contributing to this was an important part of my journey in violence prevention. Finally getting to a place where myself, our unit, and the researchers could show how big the problem is, then present evidence about how to prevent it.”
In November, Abrahams presented a keynote address on femicide to President Cyril Ramaphosa and other high-placed policy-makers.
“It was a presidential summit, and I was asked to do the keynote on femicide and I think that was really special – to be speaking directly to policymakers and having them forced to listen to me,” she says.
According to the most recent South African Police Service (SAPS) statistics, 1 101 women were murdered in South Africa from October to December 2022, an average of 12 murdered women a day. During this time 12 419 rapes were recorded.
Despite the shocking statistics, Abrahams says change is happening. She notes a decrease in femicide. “Still our problem is massive. Even though we had this decrease, we are still about five times the global average,” she says.
Men’s behaviour is the primary factor in gender-based violence. And it’s social norms that inform men on how they should behave, and expectations from society on what it means to be masculine.
Abrahams points out that poverty is a key underlying hurdle, causing women not to leave abusive partners. “A large part of the multiple factors that make up the sum of change here is women’s economic position and education. Better educated women who are abused are more likely to leave. So education is a protective factor. Also, if a woman has an income, she can get out of a situation better than somebody who’s totally dependent on the abuser.”
Getting men to think about what kind of men they want to be
Of course, domestic violence and rape negatively affect men as well. Boys who live in homes with abusive fathers are often terrified. Questions [about] men, on how and why they abuse, informed Abrahams’ PHD thesis obtained at UCT in 2002. “Men’s behaviour is the primary factor in gender-based violence. And it’s social norms that inform men on how they should behave, and expectations from society on what it means to be masculine. And then also, simply, they get away with it. It’s impunity and a sense of entitlement. They get away with it and that’s why they do it,” she says.
Abrahams cites an intervention designed by a PhD student affiliated to their unit who interviewed male students at residences at UCT, Stellenbosch University, and the University of the Western Cape. During orientation week, the men were rating passing female students, based on how likely they thought the women to have sex with them within a week.
“And they laugh at each other and think it’s fun,” says Abrahams. “So our project [in conjunction with non-profit Sonke Gender Justice] aims to make them think critically about this, about women’s agency – make them rethink their masculinity, what kind of men they want to be.”
Abrahams has been described as a “modest trailblazer”. Laughing, she responds, “First of all, my name is Arabic. I’m a practicing Muslim and sometimes wear a scarf. In the past, people have actually been taken aback. They say can you really be doing this work, say the words sex and vagina, and all of that? People have these views that feminists should be a certain way, but I like to break that stereotype. There isn’t just one kind of feminist. Some of us speak quietly, fighting through research and analyses.”
Abrahams grew up in Salt River, where she was the first in her immediate community to obtain a PhD. The family now lives in Pinelands. She says she is looking forward to her retirement in three years’ time – which will see her catching up on reading and travelling, particularly around Africa. After that, she plans to volunteer at a local non-profit organisation, possibly in a field that is not gender related.