Defending women against violence and abuse

SHOCKING: Statistics show one in five women experience physical violence. Four in 10 divorced or separated women have reported violence and one in three youths have been sexually abused. Picture: Chris Collingridge

One of the greatest struggles in our democracy is not necessarily corruption, the slow pace of service delivery or even the type of fiscal policies that we have had in place but rather the ongoing violence perpetrated against women and children.In 2015,there have been many campaigns against the president, against monopoly capital, against the banks, for land restitution but hardly any, if any at all, against the ongoing onslaught against women and children.

We have become acclimatized to the soaring levels of violence against women. We know, and have almost made peace with the fact, that half of women born in South Africa will be raped in their life time or one in three women being sexually assaulted in their lifetimes. 

Statistics South Africa, through their South African Demographic and Health Survey, the results of which were released recently, indicate that one in five women, over the age of 18, have reported experiencing violence at the hands of their partners.

This cannot be acceptable. Where are the marches or the protests? Why are our political parties not coming together in a multi-party fashion and demonstrating against this evil which is creeping in all our veins as men?

It was Tata Madiba who reminded us that “freedom cannot be achieved unless women have been emancipated from all forms of oppression”. 

In its preliminary Report on the Victims of Crime Survey, expected to be released later in this year, Statistics South Africa showed that only one in ten households in the country feared child abuse occurring. In other words, people were not aware of child abuse as a threat to their household as much as they feared burglary, that is housebreaking, or street robbery.

Only thirty percent of South Africans feel safe to walk when its dark while a third felt unsafe when going to a park or open space alone. Nearly a quarter of those who responded to the survey felt unsafe about their children playing in the area because of crime. Nearly two in ten indicated that they felt unsafe about wearing just want they wanted to. 

Nearly two-thirds of the perpetrators of violent crime are considered to be from the same area as opposed to people coming from other communities or parts of the country to perpetrate crime. A very low number of six percent of perpetrators of violent crime were thought to be from outside the country.

The survey continues to show that one out of ten assault cases reported are where the spouse or lover is the perpetrator. Twenty-eight percent of assaults happen within the home, the highest place where assault occurs. Sudden personal anger and jealousy are cited as the top reasons for assault.

While all of these statistics are based on the perceptions of ordinary South African households, the survey conducted by Statistics South Africa does give us a barometer on exactly how hot the situation is in the country in respect of patriarchy, masculinity and its effects. It would not be far off to connect the two.

The realities and both perceptions of the citizens of our country paint a daunting challenge as to that which transcends race and class. Indeed, while many are aware that Black women, and African women in particular, bear the brunt of patriarchy, as witnessed in that infamous Spur video, some of us could not but help think about the White female partner of that White man. Surely, could it be that she to has to live with his daily abuse; in the privacy of their home? 

However, more than creating hashtags such as #MenAreTrash or raising awareness of this abuse of women and children, we must understand and consider the structural violence that exists through patriarchy.

For example, in the Demographic and Survey conducted by Statistics South Africa mentioned earlier, also cites violence suffered by wives at the hands of their husbands was found to be lower than violence suffered by those women who were divorced or separated. In other words, those women who are perceived to be more vulnerable suffer more at the hands of either their ex, their current partner or even a stranger. 

Teenage pregnancy remains a challenge in South Africa, the survey says, with over a quarter of girls at school attending age falling pregnant. Men were said to have up to fifteen sexual partners in their lifetime while women averaged at four. The survey also found that nearly seventy percent of South African women are said to be obese.

However, what is to be done? The awareness campaigns, especially on social media help. Yet at times people get trapped in the linguistics or the concepts of these campaigns. We saw this in #BlackLivesMatter when some suggested #AllLivesMatter. This time round we see people disagreeing that all men are trash when instead of recognising that all men, especially those who are heterosexual men, benefit from patriarchy.

Yet patriarchy is structural and while encouraging agents, individuals, whether male or female, to act, it is important for us to recognise that structures need changing in our society. 

The primary structure is the home. For centuries, political scholars have debated the role that the state plays or does not play in determining what happens within the private sphere of our homes. Yet what sociologists will indicate is that the home and the family remain the bedrock of any society; despite the form these homes or families may take.

The family, for example, took centre stage in the United Kingdom’s last election, despite it being a liberal democracy. Our National Development Plan speaks nothing of the family or the home and given the serious challenges we face from our homes, especially with the rearing of boys into abusive men, as one example, it is maybe time that the governing party and we, as a society, embark on a national discussion on the home and family.

While our churches, mosques and temples have been occupied with a #MustFall campign, we hear a deafening silence from them in the wake in this #WarOnWomen in South Africa. Our religious leaders must be able to take up this national discussion, given their place in civil society, on the home. For it is there, in the home, where patriarchy starts and breeds.

The same preliminary Report on the Victims of Crime Survey, quoted earlier, highlights the important role that the media plays in communicating human trafficking. Ninety-four percent of people, it said, heard about human trafficking through the media. In this way, the media, especially industries such as the entertainment industry, can play a role in breaking down patriarchy.

Only thirty-five percent of crimes reported are perceived to be sexual offences. Two thirds of respondents believe that the life of a prisoner in South Africa is too cosy. Can the media not play roles in encouraging people to report, especially sexual crimes, and showing us on the outside what life inside prison is like?

Yet the most interesting shift in statistics shown by this survey is the shift in what people think are the answer to crime. While one wishes not to downplay the devastating situation in respect of crimes against women and children, one has to understand these crimes within the broader context of crime, inequality, poverty and unemployment in South Africa for they are all linked.

The answer to crime, South Africans suggest through this survey, is economic development. Hence once again radical economic transformation becomes implicit in even dealing with the question of abuse against women and children in South Africa. There should be no doubt, the more economically independent women are, the more they will guarantee their freedom.

Meokgo Matuba is the Secretary General of the ANC Women’s League