|Pope John Paul II High School Junior Charlsi Jayne Patterson, center, traveled to South Africa in the fall to work with the Rock Girl organization raising awareness about the problem of sexual violence against girls and women.
Charlsi Jayne Patterson, a junior at Pope John Paul II High School, and the teenage girls in the Rock Girl organization in South Africa live a world apart – geographically, economically, socially and culturally. But despite their differences, it was their similarities that brought them together on a trip in the fall through the Northern Cape of South Africa promoting the importance of preventing sexual violence and supporting more opportunities for girls.
“They’ve been very shocked and surprised to hear how we can immerse ourselves in this culture and actually relate to these girls … who experience such a different lifestyle and how we can relate and become such close friends with them,” Patterson said.
Rock Girl started about five years ago when a group of girls from Manenberg Township in Cape Town approached Patterson’s aunt, India Baird, “asking for a way to feel safe, to speak out against the violence they had experienced in their community,” Patterson said.
Baird is a children’s and women’s rights attorney in South Africa who worked for the South African Ministry of Justice under former President Nelson Mandela, Patterson explained.
The girls started the Safe Spaces Campaign, a public art and education initiative to create spaces, both symbolic and real, for people to feel safe from sexual and gang violence. Since its start in 2011, the campaign, working with artists and designers, has created more than 40 Safe Space benches and spaces around Cape Town, and the program is now spreading to Johannesburg.
Through the use of social media, art and photography, the campaign is portraying positive messages that people can feel safe at the benches and spaces, Patterson said. “It’s creating awareness of the sexual violence and the gang violence in their township,” she said.
Each Safe Space bench or room in an urban area has a sister bench in a more disadvantaged community, according to the organization’s website: “Rock Girl creates real safe spaces in some of the most dangerous, challenged communities in Cape Town. At the same time, Rock Girl hopes to create symbolic safe spaces to raise awareness and unite men and women, boys and girls in the effort to end violence against women and girls.”
The girls in Rock Girl, most of them between the ages of 13 and 16, wanted to know if girls in other South African communities were facing similar issues. So Baird and Sue Johnson, a professional photographer and professor at Columbia University in New York, accompanied the girls last June on a road trip through the Eastern Cape of South Africa, Patterson said.
“They visited other townships and villages speaking to other girls to see how they lived their lives and what they experienced as teenage girls as well,” Patterson said. Along the way, the girls documented their trip and what they found out with video, photography and blogs.
“Most of the girls on the road trip had never left their township before, so this was a great opportunity for them,” Patterson added.
The trip was a success and the girls were soon planning a second trip to the Northern Cape last fall. They also wanted to know what it’s like for girls living in America, Patterson said. So Patterson, her younger sister Isabella, and two other teens from the U.S., Tea Diprima and Rachel Walton, were invited to travel to South Africa to accompany the Rock Girls on their trip to the Northern Cape.
While visiting some of the natural wonders of the Northern Cape, the group also again met with girls in the communities along the way to talk to them about the issues they were facing.
At first, the girls the group met on their trip didn’t know what to think, Patterson said. “They were hesitant to tell us their story.” So the Rock Girl group would invite the local girls to their tour bus where they could get to know each other, Patterson said. The Rock Girl group then interviewed the local girls “and they told us of their struggles in their town,” she added. “We felt very successful with our road trip in helping the girls realize it wasn’t just them, that they weren’t alone in this battle.”
Patterson learned a lot about life for the girls in South Africa and herself. They all shared similarities, Patterson said. “They’re still just young girls,” listening and dancing to the same music, she said. But there are differences, Patterson said. “Life for them is drastically different. They do live in constant fear.”
Patterson had numerous conversations with her new South African friends. “One of them was as teenage girls we can sometimes be very cruel to each other. That is one thing we can control,” Patterson said. “We can control how we treat each other and have a voice and inspire each other to speak out and be brave as young women.”
After the trip, the Rock Girl group met with South Africa’s justice minister to talk to him about the issues girls in the communities they visited were talking about, such as teen pregnancy, education opportunities for girls, and sexual violence. “He was very interested to hear” about how Rock Girl was raising awareness of these issues and wants to meet with them again, Patterson said. “People are paying attention.”
Patterson wants to bring the message to Tennessee and the United States.
Johnson, Baird and the girls are creating a short documentary about their trip, Patterson said. “Hopefully we’ll be able to use the documentary to … create this awareness not only in South Africa but here in Hendersonville, Tennessee,” she said.
Patterson is working on a presentation on her trip that she will share with the other students at JPII, and she is hoping the girls of Rock Girl will be able to visit the United States in the spring to take a Civil Rights tour of the South. “We want to show them this isn’t happening just in their country, but this has happened in the U.S. as well,” Patterson said
She would like to bring the group to JPII. “We’re trying to make Rock Girl go global.”
To learn more about Rock Girl visit