Are we in danger –yes. Should we take precautions – yes. Should we live in fear –no.– Celeste Louw
WOMEN’S Month has just come to an end and, with gender-based violence (GBV) on just about everyone’s lips, Kimberley’s Celeste Louw opened up about being a survivor herself and how she has used her experience to fight for the rights of others.
Being a survivor of child abuse and domestic violence, Louw says through the years she has taken on many roles.
“First and foremost, I am a daughter, wife, mother, grandmother, sister and friend. Being abused as a child and then later a victim of domestic violence, I have grown into the role of a healing guide, activist and biker. I work every day to combat GBV from a human rights perspective,” she says.
“I believe we have one life and we should deeply live it.”
Growing into this role, Louw co-founded Optimystic Bikers against Abuse.
Louw says growing up was not easy and describes her childhood as “complicated”.
“My parents were divorced when I was seven, my father passed away when I was 11 and soon after that I was sexually, emotionally and psychologically abused by a close family member for a period of about six years.”
She said, at the time, her saving grace was her Catholic education.
“I was educated at a Catholic convent so the conflict in me between the school environment and what was going on at home was starkly clear.
“I am very grateful for the education I received and I think it was that safe space at school that created a burning desire in me to not only make a difference in others’ lives but to find a way to my own healing, and to help others find a way to theirs. I am no longer a practising Catholic but the lessons, knowledge, love and wisdom I received there has definitely shaped my life.”
After Louw moved to Kimberley, she started Optimystic Bikers against Abuse, a registered bike club as well as a registered NPO.
“We are a small group of dedicated and passionate people (both bikers and non-bikers) combating GBV from a human rights perspective. We work in the community by the community, for the community and rely on donations to stay afloat,” she says.
Optimystic Bikers was formed in 2011 by a group of close friends with a deep desire to help survivors find their way to a healing journey.
“While we all have our own stories, we all strive to live by the biker code of honesty, loyalty, respect, honour, trust, integrity, courtesy, charity and brother/sisterhood in every sphere of our lives.”
Louw said that to accomplish their goals of assisting survivors and creating a safe and peaceful society they have a three-prong strategy: “We assist survivors from crisis to healing, we advocate for and educate on all levels of society to create awareness and sustainable strategies to combat the complex social norms that drive GBV and we collaborate and network with other role-players in the field.”
By doing it in this way, she says, they are empowering survivors to make a difference in the community.
“We have various strategies which include hands-on assistance for survivors from a survivor’s perspective. This means we walk with survivors from the time they contact us until they are on a healing journey where they feel comfortable enough that they no longer need our support.”
She added that they also run educational campaigns, healing courses, training programmes and work with service providers up to and including the legislature to ensure compassionate and trauma-informed care for survivors.
“I feel that if each one can reach one and if we stand together as individuals, families, communities to end the violence and human rights violations in our country, we will see great change.
“We need to challenge the hearts and minds of people by having courageous conversations to create a world where we all see each other as human first, a world where human dignity, peace and freedom are guaranteed to all no matter who they are, where they come from and what their race, creed, gender, sexuality, culture, spirituality or social standing are.”
Louw believes that while eradicating GBV is a very tall order, combating it is definitely doable.
“We have plans to widen our services and reach, as well as grow our mentoring and victim support programmes. We are working on new and innovative online platforms as well as extending our in-person services (currently only available in Kimberley and Johannesburg) to include other bases in all provinces.”
She added that they are also working very hard to build solid partnerships with legislation.
“We are currently in a programme with other local organisations, like the Northern Cape Provincial Legislature and Democracy Works Foundation, to strengthen civil society organisation participation with the legislature. We would like to broaden this to include sustainable partnerships that, in the long term, will bridge the gap between government, civil society and the people across all provinces.”
Being at the coal face of extreme violence has had its effects on Louw.
“I think that being traumatised and seeing the things I have experienced and then seeing others’ experiences has forced me to focus on my own healing on a daily basis.
“My own struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder has taught me that there are no easy solutions. It is a daily journey to being your best you and managing the consequences of seeing such things.
“Combating anger, fear and facing evil in the face is really much harder than people acknowledge. I have great respect for survivors who move on to live full and happy lives while facing what is essentially a life sentence of fall-out. Every person I can help gives me the courage and strength to carry on. I also have a great support network which is vital. Without a tribe, a team, a club – whatever you want to call it – this would not be possible. I am grateful for every person who keeps me going so I can help others, especially my husband, family and organisation.”
Louw says there is much more that can be done to save those in violent circumstances.
“We need to really create connections between people and communities. The root of our societal problems starts in homes, in the way people think and treat each other.
“We need stronger, inclusive conversations. We need to challenge social norms. As much as the focus is on getting government and service providers to correctly deal with this scourge, we must remember that as soon as someone needs the police we have already lost the battle.
“We need to combat the problem where it starts. We need to change hearts and minds and we need to make bystander intervention a given. If you see it, do something about it. We need an open and honest conversation. We need to hold hands and stand together.”
Louw went on to say that if anyone finds themselves in this situation, obtaining a protective order is not as easy as it seems.
“It is very difficult for a survivor. The onus is on them to provide evidence and to convince a magistrate that their concerns are valid.”
She added that although the system itself has improved, it still causes a lot of secondary trauma.
“In most cases, you have to accompany the police to serve the order – unless you have an order that stipulates you do not have to – another traumatisation.
“After that, you have to appear in court and once again prove your case with evidence and if the other party has a lawyer and the issue is complicated with maintenance, divorce, custody it can become very complicated. It shouldn’t, but it often does,” she says.
But, it doesn’t end there. “Essentially once you have a protection order, enforcing it is up to you too. Often the psychological and emotional fallout and trauma of abuse including codependency come into play here. Then you have to negotiate to get policing to enforce protection order violations, go back to court and again prove your case.
“In essence, if you don’t know your rights, it is not an easy process to negotiate.”
According to Louw, GBV has become confused with violence against women and children only. “That being said, most victims coming forward are still women. From a violence against women perspective, I think there is a perception of ‘men declaring war on women’ which in essence is causing a bias in itself. Are we in danger – yes. Should we take precautions – yes. Should we live in fear – no,” she says.