Stellenbosch University
Welcome to Stellenbosch University
#WomenofSU: Disruption of existing cycles of violence needed
Author: Corporate Communication and Marketing Division/Afdeling Korporatiewe Kommunikasie en Bemarking
Published: 26/08/2021

Dr Selina Palm wears many hats, including that of an educationalist, a curriculum designer, youth leader, gender equity facilitator, feminist theologian and researcher. These diverse roles are driven by her singular commitment to promote intersectional social justice.

Based in the Unit for Religion and Development Research of the Faculty of Theology at Stellenbosch University (SU), Dr Palm works to disrupt existing social systems that have a negative effect on efforts to create a good life for all genders and ages. Vulnerable children, womxn, persons with marginalised sexualities and those living with disabilities are particular focuses.

Since joining the faculty in early 2017, she has been applyi​​ng her interdisciplinary expertise to examine a wide range of dilemmas relating to religion, culture, development, human rights, social violence, justice, and sexual and reproductive health and rights.

As part of commemorating South Africa's Women's Month, she tells us more about her work.

Tell us more about your research.

I work with the Unit for Religion and Development Research, an interdisciplinary unit in the Faculty of Theology. I take a feminist lens to my research, which seeks to open up spaces for those who are often excluded from study and society so that they too can participate in our research and tell their stories and experiences in ways that can shape a different future for our African society and the world.

I want to better understand how different forms of social violence intersect, for example, social violence against womxn, children, queer people and those living with disabilities, especially in low-resource and conflict-related settings. In my work, I take a critical yet constructive lens to religions and cultures to contribute towards social norms change and how different groups are treated.

I operate across multiple faith settings and five continents, working with tiny organisations in Cape Town through to larger institutions such as the United Nations at an international level. My work seeks to end a range of harmful practices that threaten girls' well-being, such as child marriage, and to engage faith actors as important allies in these processes.  

Why or how did you become interested in this specific area of research?

Before I joined SU, I worked for many years as a hands-on practitioner with vulnerable children and people living with HIV and Aids across East and Southern Africa. In that time, I saw many kinds of family-related violence and sexual stigma in families and communities, often trapped in vicious cycles of intergenerational abuse, poverty and other challenging dilemmas. I had many questions about what we needed to learn and understand better to transform these harmful social patterns in sustainable ways. In my work now, I seek to build bridges between theory and practice, between the academy and grassroots activism, and between secular and religious perspectives.

Why do you think this is such an important area of research for women/young girls in South Africa (or globally)?

South Africa has some of the highest rates of violence against womxn and children in the world today. So much of this is shaped by our long colonial history of intersecting inequalities, and the intergenerational trauma still playing out in people's lives. We intentionally need to disrupt cycles of violence by tackling the root causes of how masculinity and femininity are framed, as well as the gendered social norms that continue to position many women as inferior to men, or entrap them in homes of bondage, instead of allowing women, men and children to flourish together in households of freedom. We have many great laws in this country, but there is a large gap between those laws and people's daily lived experiences. In this respect, South Africa has important research contributions to make to the global conversation, which still needs to be decolonised.

The pandemic has changed the way we work and live. What keeps you motivated during these times?

Many of my research projects had to shift focus midway. For example, in early 2020, colleague Dr Elisabet le Roux and I had just kicked off with a Photovoice 2.0 project with female students at SU, exploring the drivers of campus rape culture here. And then suddenly, no one was on campus. So, many pivots were needed. My research constantly shows me the need to be agile and adapt.

Despite all its griefs and stresses, I feel this pandemic also offers us possibilities to “build back better". We don't have to return to a normal that was often very unsafe for womxn and children; we can move forward to create a 'new normal'. Social norms can change: Just look at how South Africans and the world have adapted to tackle this latest crisis in just one year. South Africa has also been a leading voice in making connections between the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and violence against womxn and children. In fact, as part of my involvement with the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians, we just launched a book (free to download) entitled A Time Like No Other: COVID-19 in Women's Voices (August 2021). It showcases the experiences of women and girls across South Africa living with these twin pandemics. These diverse voices speaking out give me hope

Tell us something about yourself that few people would expect.

In my spare time, I love doing Afro-Latin dancing, especially Kizomba, which comes from Angola. My dad grew up dancing in the streets of Johannesburg with his sister, and when I dance, I feel as if I connect to all my African ancestors in new ways as a form of self-care. It helps me get out of my head and into my own body, which can often be difficult for academics. Finally, it connects me to many other genders in a celebratory and joyful way, which I feel is an essential balance to my feminist research on violence prevention, which can feel overwhelmingly negative at times.

What would your message be to the next generation of women researchers?

Firstly, to remember that female self-care is a feminist act; to believe that research methodologies can be a site of disruption, and to cultivate the virtue of curiosity.

Secondly, to do generative research, and not to focus only on the tasks of deconstruction. Nurturing shared visions for all genders and ages also means disrupting the systems where some are valued more than others; not seeking to merely join the system and become the new “one at the top".

Thirdly, I do feel frustrated when I see feminist movements polarising over issues such as sex work, violence against boys, or transrights. We need to build intersectional alliances of trust, have robust dialogues about complex issues and find ways to listen to one another's stories. After all, when our movements fragment from within, patriarchy, which also harms many men and boys, gains power.