Scripted violence in adolescent girls and young women’s sexual socialization: Magnifying the glass

Words by Dumisa Sofika

Book review

Nduna, M. (2020). A magnifying glass and a fine-tooth comb: understanding girls’ and young women’s sexual vulnerability. Pretoria:

CSA&G Press – an imprint of the Centre for Sexualities, AIDS and Gender, University of Pretoria.

ISBN: 978-1-77592-200-1(print)

ISBN: 978-1-77592-201-8 (e-book)

On the 6th of February 2020, a 23-year-old LGBTQI activist Lindokuhle Cele was fatally stabbed 21 times at a butchery in his hometown of Umlazi. Eyewitnesses in an IOL coverage (February 16, 2020) of the story reported that the incidence occurred in public. TimesLive (February 10, 2020) reported police spokesperson Captain Nqobile Gwala’s pronouncement on the incident: “He sustained stab wounds and the knife was stuck in his left eye” Eyewitnesses described the assault as brutal and Cele’s dismayed family said that the perpetrator fatally stabbed Lindokuhle because he was gay. In another incident, the Cape Argus (August 20, 2020) reported on the death of Nomvuzo Atoll (22) who was murdered and her body found in a rubbish dump in Phillipi, Cape Town (the body of a murdered 17 year old girl had been found in the same site just a month before).

South Africa is a violent society and whilst both men and women are at risk (Bradshaw et al., 2010; Statistics South Africa, 2012), men are more likely to die violently in the South African society (STATS SA, 2018). In the Black zone the panoply of violence and vulnerability are given meaning in all their senses: systemic, institutional, historical and epistemic, racial and economic (Nduna, Wekwete, Mkwananzi, & Makongoza, 2020). More men die each year than women in South Africa in the Black zone ( This is very worrying, but what is disturbing in the gender dynamics of violence is that women are more likely (than men) to suffer morbidity, disability and mortality in the hands of their intimate partners (Brodie, 2020). Further, it is the brutality with which adolescent girls and young women (AG&YW) die that is shocking. The way AG&YW die of preventable deaths is a cause for concern. It’s on this basis that the assumptions addressed in this book around AG&YW’s bodily autonomy and safety speak of the unevenness of the brutality of violence on gender in South Africa. In opening this article I reflect on Lindokuhle’s death, him trying to make sense of what was happening to him. His assaulter’s hatefully frenzied state of mind, and my thoughts shift to Nomvuzo and her attacker. One stabbed 21 times and the murder weapon left in his eye socket, the other raped, stabbed and dumped in a dumping site. The multiple indignities that these bodies went through in life, at the moment of death and after death. Their crime: gender, being the feminised gender. Gay men and women (in their diversity) are subjects of attack and violence and whilst the book is focused on cisgender and heteronormative adolescents and youth; there are parallels in the struggles of adolescents and youth with gender transgressive identities and AG&YW. The project of modernity that is discussed in this book is centred around heteronormality; and any identities that threaten this are marginalised and at worst violated and eliminated.

At the center of these two murders (and countless others) is the Black feminine body as object in acts of violence. In Lindokuhle’s case it is a psychosomatic explosion of violent hate that takes as its psychic object, the female body. I think about it. Along with Black gay men, the Black female body occupies the lowest position in the capitalistic patriarchal symbolic order of South Africa society (Black male violence on the Black female body is an antagonism that warrants a separate deeper discussion though). Lindokuhle’s murderer was not attacking a gay activist (he was, but also in addition to that) he was attacking what he perceived to be the female body in the gay activist. Perhaps in his frenzied soma, he was challenging her to come out and fight like a man. Challenging Lindo in a consciously distorted psychic frenzy. Stabbing her out of Lindo, erasing her and in the process erasing Lindo. How dare she? How dare Lindo allow the feminine to subsume his body? The feminine has no space inside the Black male body and so must be violently exorcised for this transgression. The ultimate penalty is death and nothingness. This is the extent of female vulnerability in South Africa where the female body can be mutilated and dumped (Brodie, 2020).

Professor Nduna’s monograph is a reminder that one can never fully exhaust the range and depth of AG&YW vulnerability in South Africa (van der Riet, Sofika, Akhurst, & Daniels, 2019). Nduna registers this reminder with sexual health interventionists who model interventions and sexual health campaigns for young women in developing countries. This monograph is an offering to those who are not experts or professionals but take up Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) and other interventions that promote the wellbeing of AG&YW. SRHR can often be an arena in which the myriad solutions to sexual vulnerability are met by a myriad of vulnerabilities that captures young women in a receding cycle of infinite negatives (Sofika & van der Riet, 2017). In this arena, assumptions are critical, and so is the readiness to address these assumptions. In this book, the reader is encouraged to always use a magnifying glass that offers an exploded view of the various ways SRHR is undermined by the kinds of assumptions around which interventions are modelled. The stakes are visible. We are guilty of some form of not seeing and erasure unless, of course, we take note of the exploded view that the magnifying glass presents to us. So seeing becomes a central theme in the monograph and the reader, and interventionists are invited to see what they may have overlooked. One is able to see for example the absence of LGBTQI accommodation in these interventions which stand in debt to a proper reading of female vulnerability in South Africa.

Five central assumptions underpinning sequential models of SRHR interventions are interrogated in this monograph and these open up a range of questions. The linear upward view of progress that informs such models is called into question. The rightly placed optimism that often accompanies these models is shattered by reality in South Africa, which is much more disjointed for adolescent girls and young women. Lifelong responsibilities often call upon young girls and women in ways that supersede what the models can theoretically accommodate. The milestones charted in the models therefore fragment into a multiplicity of limitations around education and schooling, sexuality, societal expectations and gendered socioeconomic forces. For those designing the models, how well placed are they to make pronouncements on such pivotal issues and what do they risk overlooking? This monograph is crucial for SRHR interventionists since it places at the forefront core issues of South African society that can often undermine well-meaning but facile theoretical (and ethical) assumptions about AG&YW’s wellbeing. Every programme must be fully conscious of the conditions in which it places its interventions otherwise it risks being a conduit for other more subtle forms of vulnerability for AG&YW.

I came away from reading this monograph thinking that the vulnerability of AG&YW extends into domains that need ever more and more exploration in light of the position that AG&YW occupy in society. The monograph evoked images of a kind of social calibration (Sofika & van der Riet, 2017) that produces vulnerability for especially Black AG&YW. That there is also something going on at the psychic level through this social calibration. So interventionists need to understand that they are not just working only with the AG&YW in their interventions but with (and against) society at large. There is a tension that needs to be resolved and it needs interventionists to consider other ways in which AG&YW are made vulnerable as well as how this vulnerability operates outside of the interventions themselves. Homicidal violence against women is an extreme example that I use here but it is an everyday occurrence and for me it is made cumulatively possible by other less visible forms of violence against young women. The reader will relish in how this monograph brings to life the ways in which well-meaning SRHR interventions have the potential to be undermined by these multiple micro vulnerabilities.


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