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Clothesline Project

The Clothesline Project centrally involves women and children who write or paint onto T-shirts testimony of their direct experiences of violence and abuse. This national project employs the metaphor of “hanging out society’s dirty laundry”, and the public disclosure of abuse is often therapeutic for those who choose to do so. This collaboration between the Western Cape Network on Violence against Women and the Centre is only one example of how passionate we are of walking our talk. A large number of T-shirts are on display at the Centre.


As a campaign for the 16 Days to End Violence Against Women, partner organisations at the Saartjie Baartman Centre got together to paint their messages on t-shirts. At a ceremony on 30 November 2007 these t-shirts were hung on the fence of our grounds, running along Klipfontein Road. Not only were they a colourful sight, but the slogans written on them sent out a strong message about the need to end gender-based violence.


A further campaign to “air your dirty laundry” took place at the Saartjie Baartman Centre on 11 December 2009, as part of the Centre’s 10 birthday celebrations. This time, some 200 children from neighbouring schools were invited to join our shelter children to spend a morning of fun and seriousness painting their messages on t-shirts. Aided by a group of artists who volunteered their time to inspire them, the children set to their task with great enthusiasm, interspersing their flashes of inspiration with leaping on and off the jumping castles. They could also have their faces painted and each child wore a slapper band on their wrist, proclaiming that `violence ends here’. Thanks to all the volunteers for their assistance, and to Good Hope FM for their live broadcast from the Centre on that day.


Because of the success of the 2009 “air your dirty laundry” campaign, and as part of the 16 Days of Activism to End Violence Against Women, the Saartjie Baartman Centre organized another t-shirt painting day. This time older learners from schools in the greater Athlone area, many of whom had been through the SBC gender-based violence education programme in their schools, demonstrated their creativity on the t-shirts provided.

This year, the SBC took the campaign one step further. T-shirts from the 2009 and 2010 campaigns were hung up on clotheslines outside the Good Hope Centre in Cape Town, proclaiming their anti-gender-based violence messages to all passers-by. Good Hope FM did a live broadcast from the Good Hope Centre, during which SBC director, Synnøv Skorge, was interviewed.

The message to stop violence against women is becoming louder and clearer. More and more women are breaking the silence and coming forward for assistance. The SBC, for example, sees on average 180-200 women a month for counselling and legal advice. However, stopping the violence needs the co-operation of men, both abusers and non-abusers. United we stand, divided we fall may be a rather well-worn motto these days, but it still holds true for relationship building, whether for individuals or the nation.

History of the Clothesline Project

According to the Men’s Rape Prevention Project in Washington DC, 58,000 soldiers died in the Vietnam war. During that same period of time, 51,000 women were killed mostly by men who supposedly loved them. In the summer of 1990, that statistic became the catalyst for a coalition of women’s groups on Cape Cod, Massachusetts to consciously develop a program that would educate, break the silence and bear witness to one issue – violence against women.

This small, core group of women, many of whom had experienced some form of personal violence, wanted to find a unique way to take staggering, mind-numbing statistics and turn them into a provocative, “in-your-face” educational and healing tool.

One of the women, visual artist Rachel Carey-Harper, moved by the power of the AIDS quilt, presented the concept of using shirts – hanging on a clothesline – as the vehicle for raising awareness about this issue. The idea of using a clothesline was a natural. Doing the laundry was always considered women’s work and in the days of close-knit neighborhoods women often exchanged information over backyard fences while hanging their clothes out to dry.

The concept was simple – let each woman tell her story in her own unique way, using words and/or artwork to decorate her shirt. Once finished, she would then hang her shirt on the clothesline. This very action serves many purposes. It acts as an educational tool for those who come to view the Clothesline; it becomes a healing tool for anyone who make a shirt – by hanging the shirt on the line, survivors, friends and family can literally turn their back on some of that pain of their experience and walk away; finally it allows those who are still suffering in silence to understand that they are not alone.