Tackling gender-based violence in our country

Women and men of all ages take part in the #OneTooMany march from Kaizergracht Street to Parliament. Commentators and gender activists in the country say that for every reported rape, from nine up to 27 others go unreported. Picture: Henk Kruger

There are several yardsticks one can look at to measure how healthy a society is. One of these litmus tests is to gauge how a country takes care and protects their most vulnerable – women, children and the aged, to name a few. Sadly, the numbers reflecting violence against women and children are a shameful reminder of our regression as a race. Gender-based violence remains a significant issue in South Africa with intimate partner violence accounting for approximately forty to seventy percent of female murder victims. 

At least seventy-seven percent of women in Limpopo province, fifty-one percent of women in Gauteng, forty-five percent of women in the Western Cape and thirty-six percent of women in KwaZulu-Natal have experienced some form of violence at the hands of men.

South Africa joined the international drive called the 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children in 1998.

The International 16 Days of Activism campaign focuses on generating an increased awareness on the negative impact of violence and abuse has on women and children, and on society. The annual campaign starts on November 25 and ends on December 10, Human Rights Day. This year’s theme is “Count me in: Together moving a non-violent South Africa forward.”

The United Nations defines violence against women as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or mental harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life”.

Violence and violence against women and children is part and parcel of our daily lives in South Africa and this campaign is a reminder of how we have failed to protect the most vulnerable in our society. The government may spend millions on social programmes or safety nets but it is in our homes, neighborhoods and ultimately these are the areas where we can make a real difference.

Legislation can only do so much and has not proven a deterrent as the numbers reflect. This campaign engenders a movement akin to the ‘each one teach one’ and ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ ethos. The right to human dignity is enshrined in the South African Constitution and violence of any kind impinges on those rights. We as a nation should be mobilizing in our homes and workplaces, educate our boys and young men about the value of all humans and to show respect to all.  

It is extremely difficult in a country where violence is seen and accepted as a way and means to resolve conflict, in many instances. We live in a patriarchal society and world, where male and female stereotypes, by and large, continue to foment an absurd imbalanced view in terms of how we view gender, gender politics and the respective “man” and “woman” roles.

Violence against women and children is blind to wealth and poverty alike. News out of the US in the past month is testament to this – powerful and wealthy men in the US accused of sexual assault. This is a stark reminder that whatever the context and/or circumstance, the power construct plays a huge role in determining the aggressor’s mindset and his actions. In short, too many men think they can get away with it and in many instances do.

It is important for us to remind ourselves and familiarize ourselves with the objectives of the campaign which is to attract all South Africans to be active participants in the fight to eradicate violence against women and children, hence the theme: Count me in as well as expand accountability beyond the Justice, Crime Prevention and Security (JCPS) cluster to include all government clusters and provinces. In addition, we need to combine technology, social media, the arts, journalism, religion, culture and customs, business and activism to draw attention to the many ways violence against women and children affects the lives of all people in all communities around the world. The campaign places emphasis on ensuring mass mobilisation of all communities to promote collective responsibility in the fight to eradicate violence against women and children and encourage society to acknowledge that violence against women and children is not a government or criminal justice system problem, but a societal problem, and that failure to view it as such results in all efforts failing to eradicate this scourge in our communities. There is a need to emphasise that the solution lies with all of us and that part of the justice system’s consideration when sentencing offenders for any crime is to consider society as a whole. 

I would call on those at the Justice Department to relook sentences for men convicted of crimes against women and children – it needs to send out a message that enough is enough. The 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children, important as it is, is in danger of becoming an annual touchpoint which the media pays attention to because “it’s a thing” and then gets placed on the periphery until the same time next year.

We in South Africa like quoting the Struggle adage that if you “strike a woman, you strike a rock”. While it is a powerful sentiment, that woman (and child for that matter) does not live in a vacuum. We must ensure that we continue to work towards a society where women and children, in particular, feel safe and are able to function to the best of their ability and not have the fear of violence impinge their dignity or worse.

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