‘Break the cycle’: Duchess Meghan makes a powerful statement on gender-based violence at Johannesburg engagement

By Zach Harper

The Duchess of Sussex continued to highlight violence against women and girls at a roundtable event in Johannesburg on Oct. 1, at which she also drew links between gender-based violence and mental health issues.

Meghan visited Action Aid, a non-governmental organization that works against poverty and integrates the rights of women and girls into all of its programming. When she arrived, she was hugged by three adorable little girls. An eight-year-old girl named Luyanda also presented her with a drawing she had made that was a picture of “love” featuring hearts, clouds and a cross.

Meghan has been getting – and giving! – so many hugs in South Africa! Photos: © Samir Hussein/WireImage

While there, Meghan participated in a roundtable discussion on gender-based violence and how Action Aid has been tackling it. The 38-year-old asked about progress being made in homes and shifting interactions with parents – especially fathers – when dealing with violence against girls and women. She pointed out it is as important to hold boys accountable for their actions as it is men.

“The trouble is as a young girl, if you are not feeling safe at school and not feeling safe at home, where does that leave you?” Meghan said during the discussion, according to the Daily Mail. “And that really is systemic. That is a huge issue. You will feel very displaced.”

She also said it is important that women and girls feel safe when coming forward about violence they have faced, saying she had had many conversations about gender-based violence over the last nine days and heard similar things.

“It’s so key being able to feel that they can communicate what’s happening when something goes wrong, whatever it is,” the publication reports she said. “Talking to locals throughout some of our time here this past week, whether that be the church or that’s your community… but within that community everyone is saying, ‘Well, that’s just what is done, that’s just how it is,’ and you’re shamed into not coming forward. It’s so normalized. You’re shamed into not talking about it, even though you are the victim.”

The duchess has been working on issues affecting women and girls since her early days as an actress. Photo: © Samir Hussein/WireImage

Meghan also said there is a key link between gender-based violence and mental health issues and both need to be addressed for communities to heal and stop the cycle of violence.

“There’s no piece of this conversation that can’t be had without addressing the mental health aspect,” the Daily Mail reports she said. “The ripple effect of the young girls who were affected by it and then their siblings, their community… as you say, this is generational, this is cultural, norms are passed down and understanding and acceptance is passed down, so there is a mental health aspect for everyone there. But you’re right, if you are doing this work with these young girls, then it is trying some way to break the cycle.”

Later in the day, Meghan made a visit to a school, where she met privately with girls – some of whom have been victims of gender-based violence – who are between ages 12 and 16 and have been working with the Teddy Bear Clinic Group . She heard about how the club has been helping the girls to discuss what they’ve experienced and move toward healing.

Meghan has made issues affecting women and girls a huge priority during her time in South Africa. At her first event in Cape Town on Sept. 23, she made a speech at a workshop run by The Justice Desk, an organization that provides self-defence training to women and girls in the city and beyond.

On Sept. 26, she held a meeting with women’s rights activists and leaders at the British High Commission in Cape Town before visiting the site where student Uyinene Mrwetyana, 19, was brutally murdered. Her death has outraged South Africa. Meghan tied a ribbon around the post office’s stoop and wrote “Simi kunye kulesisimo – We stand together in this moment” on it.

Meghan leaving a ribbon at the site of Uyinene’s murder. Photo: © Shutterstock

She also Skyped in to an engagement Prince Harry attended in Malawi on Sept. 29, where the royal couple heard about the work the Campaign for Female Education is doing to help women and girls attend secondary school throughout sub-Saharan Africa.

Earlier on Oct. 1, Meghan stepped out to the University of Johannesburg, where she participated in another roundtable discussion on gender-based violence and women’s rights and helped reveal three new gender grants for post-secondary institutions. The University of Johannesburg, Stellenbosch University and the University of the Western Cape will receive the funding, and the Daily Mail reported Stellenbosch’s grant will go toward improving campus safety.

At the University of Johannesburg earlier on Oct. 1, Meghan said, "When a woman is empowered it changes absolutely everything in the community and starting an educational atmosphere is really a key point of that." Photo: © Tim Rooke - Pool/Getty Images

Many of those who interacted with Meghan during her two Oct. 1 events said they were inspired by the duchess’s dedication to and knowledge of the issues.

“I think through her interest and passion in supporting women’s issues around the world, she is able to put a spotlight on what we are trying to achieve,” said Lindelwe Nxumalo, the manager of women’s rights at Action Aid, according to the Daily Mail.

PHOTOS: The best pictures from Duchess Meghan and Prince Harry’s royal tour of southern Africa

Samukelisiwa Nomusa Shongwe, who attended the University of Johannesburg engagement, said similar things.

“I think she is a great person,” the 19-year-old said, according to HELLO! UK. “She has done so many things. She has contributed to society, especially to African society. She is very interested in playing a positive role by speaking about gender equality and gender abuse.”

Meghan will reunite with Harry on the evening of Oct. 1. The two will attend several joint engagements on Oct. 2 before their tour wraps and they return to the UK later that day.

MORE: Full coverage of Duchess Meghan and Prince Harry’s royal tour of southern Africa

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