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Bonita Meyersfeld knighted for work on gender-based violence

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“I was emailed a letter that I was going to be made a Knight of the National Order of Merit by France,” says Professor Bonita Meyersfeld about the recognition she has received for her work addressing gender-based violence in South Africa. “It was surreal… It’s one of the most extraordinary things that has ever happened to me.”
by TALI FEINBERG | Mar 22, 2019

Meyersfeld – winner of the Women in Leadership award at the 2018 Absa Jewish Achiever Awards – is the founder and board chairperson of Lawyers Against Abuse (LvA). This non-profit organisation is based in Diepsloot, north of Johannesburg.

LvA has provided legal and psychological support to hundreds of victims of gender-based violence, including assisting them with protection orders, supporting them in pursuing criminal cases, and providing therapy sessions. Just recently, LvA’s work resulted in a life sentence for a perpetrator of rape and sexual violence in the informal settlement.

Meyersfeld received the order of merit on 19 March from the French ambassador to South Africa, Christophe Farnaud, in Pretoria. The knighthood is awarded by the president of France to French citizens and foreign nationals for distinguished achievements such as “acts of devotion, bravery, generosity, or a measurable commitment to serving others”.

Meyersfeld says it has been a long road to this point, from conceptualising LvA about 20 years ago, and writing a thesis and book about her unique model in combating gender-based violence, to implementing it at the centre in Diepsloot. A second centre will be built in the next two years.

She says this model has the potential to be rolled out nationally and globally. “Obviously, it has to take the local context into account, but really, there are no limits.”

LvA’s executive director, Lindsey Henson, agrees. “Our model works. We see meaningful, long-term and successful support to hundreds of women and children, resulting in a level of access to justice that is unprecedented.”

Meyersfeld believes the achievements of LvA were recognised because “the work we do is very real. I think they saw that the centre makes a real impact for people in need.”

She is thrilled that this order of merit acknowledges both that there is a problem and a possible solution, and the people that are part of it.

“It is wonderful to recognise their commitment to an indescribable problem. [The order of merit] is testimony to the thousands of heroes who survive gender-based violence, to the powerful women who founded LvA, and to the women in our centre who work every day to make LvA the sanctuary and place of justice it is today.”

She says her Jewish identity has hugely influenced her work: “My grandfather escaped Nazi Germany, and I think, as a people, we know what it is like to be persecuted. At its heart, Judaism is a religion about thinking and being responsive to society. It is very much part of my personal drive and what I do.”

To anyone who wants to change the world, especially young people, she says: “You absolutely can. Every step, every kind word, every act of kindness puts cruelty and harm further into the shadows. It really does add up, both as an individual and a collective.

“One of the most contagious things in the world is a smile and act of kindness. It doesn’t need to be big, and we see it in our community all the time. The world is led by brave people, even if it is the hardest thing to do. Be angry at injustice, and be brave.”

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