Exploring collective narratives of violence: intersections of gendered “selves” of place and time among members of an African women’s support network
Van Schalkwyk, Samantha
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Research in the field of gender-based violence and agency is often very individualistically orientated, drawing on Western theories that may not be well suited to understanding the experiences of women living in the African context. This qualitative study is based on facilitated group dialogue and focus group interviews involving a women‟s support group that consists of migrant African women and South African women, all of whom are currently living in South Africa. All of these women have encountered a range of experiences of violence in their lives. The aims of the study were, firstly, to explore the co-construction of subjectivities among a sample of women drawn from the women‟s support group. Secondly, the study aimed to examine how the women construct meaning both in terms of their victimhood and their agency. The study focuses mainly on the collective dimension of the women‟s construction of meaning. Using the collective biography methodologies outlined by feminist poststructuralists Davies and Gannon (2006a), the first phase of the data gathering process consisted of four interactive workshops that were facilitated by the researcher, with a sample selected from the women‟s support network. The workshops used different methodological strategies including storytelling, role plays and group discussions to explore the women‟s views about gender-based violence. The themes that emerged from these workshops were then used as a framework for developing questions for the focus groups in the second phase of the data gathering process. Each of the focus groups was conducted with 6-8 women and explored the women‟s memories of experiences of abuse at different life stages. The analysis of the data followed a narrative discursive approach informed by feminist poststructuralist theories, through a social remembering lens. The results showed that the women transformed their past by collectively utilising narrative strategies that allowed them to work with socio-cultural discourses in complex and creative ways. In this way they were able to express certain „un-narratable‟ experiences, mobilise „hidden‟ residues of gendered abuse, and work agentically, co-creating new ways of imagining themselves as violated and sexual beings in the African social landscape. This study offers novel insight into the possibilities of a collective biography research approach for facilitating abused African women‟s resistance within the South African context.