With the violence against women assuming epidemic proportions in South Africa in the recent past, and the hashtag #MenAreTrash trending voluminously, it’s heartening learning of small but significant social justice initiatives such as Action Breaks Silence working hard to bring awareness about the culture of rape and violence – and how it can be prevented.

We meet its founder Debi Stevens at a workshop at the Ikaneng Primary School in Soweto, an urban township in Johannesburg, where she bands together young boys and girls and teaches them just that.

“It started a while ago, but the root of the idea was sparked by rape,” says Stevens, herself a victim.

She was 11 years old when she was raped by her friend’s brother. She couldn’t understand what was happening to her, so she decided against telling her parents as she “thought they would divorce”.

Thankfully, she moved from Port Elizabeth to Durban in KwaZulu-Natal, far away from the perpetrator who lived in their neighbourhood. She saw him often and he had been threatening to kill her.

“In high school, I thought of martial arts as self-defence. When a karate club came to my school, I ran to my parents to ask if I can start karate classes. Both my parents said no, because I was a girl.”

Debi Stevens was herself a victim (Photo by Motlabana Monnakgotla)

Stevens speaks openly about her rape, but now sees herself as a survivor as she did go on to study martial arts. Today, she imparts this learning to young girls, and teaches young boys to respect them.

After the ordeal Stevens went through as a child, karate was her therapy. She was the only female in class, and hit the men so hard she was once asked to leave the club.

“One of the guys showed me his chest, it had my fist mark, I couldn’t believe it, I was so stunned.”

Stevens found healing in sport but soon, there was going to be another tragic turn of events. She was doing well as an athlete when she met an old friend in 1997. This friend, who had been a well-known model in South Africa in the late 1980s, was on drugs and offered them to Stevens.

Oblivious to the impact it would have on her life, she took it, not feeling any pain or emotion the first time. Six months later, she was a chronic addict to crack cocaine. Stevens was only 26 years old.

“People don’t actually realize the journey, sometimes it goes back to a really painful experience that those people are trying to escape. That’s what happened with me,” she says.

Stevens, full of energy, had found another form of escape from the horrific memories of her childhood rape.

Drugs masked her pain and emotion; she was soon selling her belongings to drug dealers.

In 1998, Stevens’ friend died in a car accident, only meters away from one of their drug dealers in Cape Town.

It was then in a fit of emotion that Stevens finally opened up to her mother for the first time about the rape – and the drugs. That was the beginning of her healing process.

“Fast forward the clock, I trained with self-defence instructors all over the world. It took me all this time to learn it so I could be able to pass it on. In my heart, it has always been how to help people that would never be able to pay for my services, that’s why the workshops,” she says.

Stevens has traveled to countries like India and organized the same program for girls and boys there. After each workshop, she sees positive changes in the children.

Thankfully, there are more such examples in Johannesburg of similar initiatives.

International sports brand Reebok partnered with Fight Club Gym for an initiative named Pretty Lethal offering free self-defence lessons for women.

“It was open to any woman who wanted to join. Women who are generally active, women of all races between the ages of 23 and 35 had registered online,” says Brian Jackson, Brand Activation Specialist for Reebok.

“The feedback has been excellent, we’ve managed to get exposure through various agencies and publications, it has been very positive because no one else has done this – an initiative to empower women.”

Phase two of Pretty Lethal will be launching in Cape Town during Women’s Month consisting of three classes of 50 women each. The fight must go on.