Waking to news of gender-based violence (GBV) and the brutal murders of women, children and members of the LGBTQIA+ community is a daily occurrence that has become normalised and is engrained in our social fabric. In South Africa, rates of sexual violence are unacceptably high and comparable to contexts in active conflict; which is yet another terrifying reminder that we have inherited and continue to nurture a culture that normalises and perpetuates violence. As women and gender minorities, we live in constant fear.
Our lives, our safety and our humanity are negotiated continuously in a world that does not see or hear us. In a world that does not deem our lives worthy of protection and dignity.
Patriarchal and misogynistic violence – as reflected within our laws, policies, cultural and social norms – is reinforced by systems of power, harmful and toxic masculinity, institutionalised oppression and historical inequalities. Misogynistic violence has real-life and often fatal consequences for those suffering under patriarchy at the hands of men.
South Africa’s culture of violence (be it sexual, structural etc. ) is particularly harmful to those least likely to be protected by society and institutions (i.e. Trans women, cis women, working-class women, black and POC communities, children, Trans men, gender-nonconforming people, masc-presenting people, people with disabilities and the LGBTQIA+ community at large). These institutions include universities, workplaces, schools, mental health institutions, the military, the police, religious institutions, communities and government.
It is the lived experiences of those who are affected by continued and daily violence that call into question the myriad of contradictions that exist in South Africa. One such example is how our democracy stands tall as a beacon of hope and a symbol for human rights protection when, in reality, this is far from the truth. We exist in a context where theory and practice are often at odds; where violence is deeply entrenched and part of our collective psyche: a nation conquered and continuously sustained through violence.
We exist in a context where sexual, and gender-based violence (GBV) is [perhaps] taken seriously in rhetoric but not in practice, where survivors of sexual violence are continuously ignored, victimised and re-traumatised by institutions that trivialise the severity of GBV, perpetuate rape culture and further silence others from speaking out against abuse.
Research shows that deliberate institutional responses (say by a workplace or university, for example) to incidents of sexual violence can have a significant impact on feelings of emotional distress when survivors report incidents of assault.
Often institutions are first-responders to sexual trauma. Additionally, sexual violence occurs within institutions, thus highlighting the vital role of institutional responses to GBV. It is at the institutional level that the dismantling of rape culture must be prioritised as it is institutions that have a significant impact on the emotional and mental well-being of survivors.
A trauma-informed and survivor-centred approach ought to be sensitive to the needs of survivors and fully understand the impact of sexual trauma throughout the reporting process – from the point of laying a charge with law enforcement or pursuing a grievance through HR, to encounters with the legal system, medical care and psychosocial support. To advocate for and implement a trauma-informed and survivor-centred approach when survivors access or are part of institutions remains a call echoed by global movements, feminist mobilisations, activists and academics in recent years.
Further research shows that a trauma-informed approach when dealing with incidents of sexual violence recognises how trauma can impact every aspect of the survivors’ life, including their mental health, academics, career and relationships etc. This approach requires first-responders to be trained and equipped to create an environment where survivors feel more comfortable reporting sexual assault and have safer spaces to share their experiences. It is, therefore, imperative that we strengthen the capacity of all first responders to incidents of GBV. This includes the police, social workers, lawyers, the courts, healthcare workers, teachers, university personnel, community workers, HR managers, workplaces, government departments and faith-based institutions.
To fully acknowledge the potential for re-traumatisation as well as the influence of past or childhood traumas allows for a GBV response that is fully supportive and paves the way for trauma-informed praxis. Moreover, dismantling institutionalised rape culture requires that we provide urgent and effective support for victims of sexual assault while prioritising efforts for justice and holding perpetrators accountable.
Believing women, believing victims and recognising that gender-based violence is a serious social problem that affects black women and gender minorities disproportionately, is one step that can be taken towards creating a collective consciousness that entirely rejects the normalisation and occurrence of gender-based violence and femicide.
The need for us to effectively and deliberately address the pervasiveness of sexual violence is urgent. Dismantling patriarchy and the persistence of GBV requires that we interrogate the ways in which our institutions are complicit in or are perpetuating violence. Supporting survivors of GBV is a social responsibility that requires us all to take up our role. Disrupting this culture that protects perpetrators is a necessary institutional response to pursue justice and to ensure community safety because we have every right to live and flourish – free from fear and violence.
Jodi Williams is a Project Officer at The Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) and is part of the Gender Justice and Reconciliation (GJR) project team.