Lisa Vetten, my ‘go to person’
Lisa Vetten, my ‘go to person’ by Aarti Narsee
I am surprised that I don’t have Lisa Vetten on speed- dial (I’m doing this right now as I write…). She has been my ‘go to’ person on almost every single story I have written on gender-based violence, always providing the critical comment needed, especially during looming deadlines.
Whenever we do see each other, its always heated exchanges and insightful discussions on the latest updates in the sector. So I was delighted to gain a glimpse of her journey, late one Friday night, while talking to her on the phone.
Although she grew up on a rural farm outside of Johannesburg, Lisa Vetten longed to live in the city. Her story begins when she moved to the city, when she turned 18. She worked as a waitress for a number of years, at coffee shops and restaurants, to earn a living.
As a waitress, Lisa had her first experience of harassment. Little did she know that almost 20 years later, these experiences would play some part in her becoming one of the most influential researchers on gender-based violence in South Africa.
“You had encounters of petty discrimination and everyday sexism. You had customers who thought because they were leaving you a tip, they were entitled to other services. You had bosses who also thought they were entitled to these perks as well. Customers who expected you to put out for them, flirt or wear a short skirt.”
After seeing an advert for a volunteer position at People Opposing Women Abuse (POWA), Lisa decided to work for their night-time helpline .
“So you would get calls from women who had been raped… from family members who didn’t know what to do, calls from women who were in abusive relationships and needed shelter,” says Vetten.
“It was a very interesting time. There was no such thing as a protection order, so if a women was beaten up by her husband, it was a case of ‘Tough – there’s nothing you can do.’ Domestic violence was regarded as a private matter. The only help you could get was from the legal system- a highly ineffective peace order or court interdict if you could afford the R20 000 advocates fee to go to the High Court.”
Lisa reflects on the police’s response to gender-based violence, “The police thought rape was something that was just wasting their time. People thought that most women women lie. When I started at POWA, it was just starting to shift, the law was starting to change.”
Lisa realised that she was only scratching the surface when it came to helping women through counselling. She recalls feeling powerless when assisting a 41- year-old coloured women, who had been in an abusive relationship and had spent the last six months in a psychiatric institution. She was on a disability grant that she used to support a two year-old toddler and three other adult children – one of whom was an alcoholic and another a drug addict also involved with gangs in the area. Her former partner would often make surprise visits to beat her up and snatch her grant – or her son would steal it to buy drugs.
“It just seemed so inadequate that the only help others could provide her with was me – a 22 year old white woman who couldn’t offer her anything except counselling….. “I don’t think that I could go back to counselling full time again, I did it for 5 years and at the end of that I knew I couldn’t do it anymore.”
In 1995, she completed the first ever study on intimate femicide in South Africa. It found that one woman was killed every six days by her intimate partner. At the time, the figures shocked people. But later, national studies found this rate to be even higher.
“The patterns identified then haven’t changed much, though. Jealousy still features very strongly as a motivating fact, and a certain percentage of men don’t just kill the woman, they kill themselves, their children and other adult family members, as well as other people – like people who try to come to the woman’s aid, or the man they accuse her of having an affair with.”
And since then she has never stopped, even though she took the “reverse” route to get there (worked first, then studied), she has completed about 35 different research studies.
The impact of her work is visible all around us. From pushing departments to understand the issues of gender-based violence to getting Parliament to host inquiries into the issue and assisting lawmakers to mould legislation.
Lisa is currently juggling between her PHD and three other studies. One looks at the criminal justice system and rape, by conducting interviews with prosecutors and legal aid attorneys and observing the courtroom proceedings. She is also looking at the impact of rape on victims.
“So when do you sleep?” I joke.
She says she finds some sanity in gardening, reading and yoga when she takes a break from all the research.It has been a long emotional journey, where she has often faced helpless victims or non-responsive government departments.
I ask her how she has managed to cope. “In some ways I can accept that people behave badly, but what I find really difficult is when your helping systems are unresponsive. That causes more stress than good old fashioned violence because nobody expects violent men to be helpful and constructive. But the police, courts and the welfare systems are supposed to be helpful. It is very frustrating when you put all these years in trying to getting them to function better and they don’t and they become a source of harm in of themselves,” she says.
Yet there is no such thing a perfectly functioning system. “You start to see things in less black and white terms and to see that there is no such thing as perfect people and perfect systems. You start to appreciate the imperfections, complexities and messiness that people work within. It pushes you to think.”
And so I finally ask her, “What would you like people to remember in 70 years from now when they google ‘Lisa Vetten’ and they see all the work you have done on gender-based violence?”
“I must say in the last couple of years I realized that this work is fragile and tenuous. You just need a Zuma for five years to practically undo everything that has been done in the last 15 years…it’s makes you think about those questions about how you work when everything around you is being eroded and unravelled. Nothing stays the same and things do change. What is disconcerting is how people frequently reinvent the wheel. Starting all over again is really discouraging, sometimes I really wonder what would be left in 70 years time.”