Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple hibiscus and gender-based violence

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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Photo: www.chimamanda.com

The spike in gender-based violence (GBV) that reached pandemic levels during the Covid-19 period reminds me of one of the books I recently read, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It is about a prominent Igbo family in Nigeria during the time of the military dictatorship of Sani Abacha. The patriarch of this family was Eugene Achike, a newspaper and industrial baron who was a strict catholic and a control freak in his family. His wife was Beatrice, and they had two children, Kambili the daughter, who is a narrator of this story and a son, Jaja. The two children were oppressed by the cocktail of a strict religious regime coupled with physical abuse by Eugene. They were restricted from seeing their paternal grandfather, Papa-Nnukwu because he was deemed to be a pagan by Eugene. 

When an opportunity arose for them to go and visit their aunt, Ifeoma, a lecturer at the University of Nigeria-Ntsukka, and her three children Amaka, Obiora, and Chima, it opened their eyes to the wider world. They experienced freedom and were for the first time encouraged to express themselves. When they were there, Ifeoma went and fetched Papa-Nnukwu, who was very sick. He died a few days later while they were there. Furthermore, Kambili met Father Amadi whom she fell in love with. But he was a monk and was ultimately transferred to Germany. 

Eugene was very upset that they shared a place with a pagan, their grandfather, and he came and picked them up. When he found out that Kambili had a drawing from her grandfather, the pagan, Eugene burnt her feet. Ultimately, Beatrice fatally poisoned Eugene, and Jaja covered for her and went to jail but got released through a pardon that was facilitated by bribery. Ifeoma was dismissed from her job and ended up in the United States.  Eugene was a respected family and churchman, even though he physically abused his wife and children. They never told anyone, a fate that befalls many abused women and children in South Africa today. Beatrice had multiple miscarriages because of these abuses.   

Here in South Africa, Naledi Phangindawo, Nompumelelo Tshaka, Nomfazi Gabada, Nwabisa Mgwandela, Altecia Kortjie and Lindelwa Peni are among the names of women killed in recent weeks. As South Africans face an invisible threat in the way of the coronavirus, our women face another perennial enemy – violence at the hands of men.

In the aftermath of Uyinene Mrwetyana’s murder last year, the mass call to action seemed to be the moment, but the scourge has continued unabated. In that very same week, other cases surfaced. Against the backdrop of the World Economic Forum (WEF) being hosted in Cape Town, there was a glimmer of hope that the voices against violence would be heard. Femicide was declared a national crisis by our President in 2019. We are, without a doubt, in the same place as we were then right now. This month, the Gender Commission argued for a shift from rhetoric to real action to curb GBV. Despite commitments to transforming legislation and ensuring that justice is served, little traction has been gained. 

It can be argued that the deep-seated structural inequalities in our society, patriarchal dominance and a host of other sociological problems are responsible for us being on this never-ending path of violence. Of course, our media reports cover GBV stories erratically with an urban focus primarily. It is clear that GBV knows no geographical boundaries. Internationally, few countries are exempt from this – it is a global phenomenon with much lip service paid to it but very little success in eradicating it. 

According to UN co-ordinator Bekele-Thomas, in 2017/18, an average of 110 rapes were recorded daily. In the years 2017 and 2018, there were 2 930 women murdered. This is, of course, just what is reported. The fear of reporting and facing up to a relentless justice system requires acts of courage and bravery. We are yet to develop compassionate enabling environments in police stations, in the courts and even wider society. According to statistics from the Global Peace Index, violence in South Africa is akin to countries at war or in conflict. This is frightening that our violence index is so high that the comparison is equated to war zones. At times one wonders if there will ever be any abatement in the violence that permeates our society. 

As the coronavirus pandemic necessitated a national lockdown, the fear was that levels of gender-based violence would increase substantially. According to data from the World Health Organisation (WHO), 35% of women around the world have already experienced some form of gender-based violence in their lifetime. In times of crisis, this number more than doubled to over 70%. An anti-domestic violence NGO in the Hubei province in China reported that partner violence had nearly doubled in lockdown. At the same time, the police station in Hubei registered three times more cases than it did a year prior. In the United Kingdom, it is reported that there has been a 120% increase in incidents of domestic violence. 

British domestic abuse NGO Refuge reports a 700% increase in calls from victims. With South Africa’s already high levels of rape, domestic and femicide, there was an expectation that this would rise. During the Ebola outbreak between 2013 and 2015, there was a distinct increase in gender-based violence. While much of this was under-reported, according to analysts, Guinea, for instance, reported a 4.5% increase in sexual and gender-based violence and twice as many rapes. While South Africa did not see a spike in gender-based violence cases immediately, there was, as anticipated,  a marked rise in cases in the shift to lockdown level 3 when the ban on the sale of alcohol was lifted.  Statistics compiled by the NGO Sonke Gender Justice indicate that women with male partners who “come home drunk frequently” are 4 to 7 times more likely to suffer violence. Intimate-partner violence is five times more likely, and male-to-female aggression is 11 times more likely with alcohol.

Reading the narratives of GBV, it is patently clear that we have not done enough. A few marches, an opinion piece here and there, politicians are making the right noises and civil society rising up every so now and then. It is what we do in the next few years that will be critical to ensure that the social cohesion, our social fabric does not simply collapse in the face of rising unemployment, a sliding economy and poverty. 

Attitudinal change is difficult to achieve – as difficult as climbing a mountain. Yet we need to work hard at it daily. If one scans twitter, there have been several times when GBV is called out and then as things do – it trends on twitter. Sadly, it remains a trend for a day or two but with no substantial gains made at all. The same applies to other social media. A society that loses its moral compass is an untenable one. Do we need to dismantle a culture that celebrates macho chauvinistic behaviour, renders women to be worse than second class citizens and tolerates continued sustained violence sometimes in conspiracies of secrecy? 

We see this behaviour in our schools, universities, churches, society at large – how does one break with these deeply inscribed patterns of behaviour? What can be done? We need a national dialogue and conversation which is not just a series of talk shops but holding up a mirror to our society and exploring these fault lines.  The mirror will reveal a deep ugliness of our society, and moreover, the very support systems that are supposed to be in place will be shown to have legs of sand. There are some countries like Singapore, for example, that advocate for heavy regulation with GBV offences rated as serious crimes. 

This has worked in their society. We are a democratic society, one that is characterised by social inequities that persist along race, gender and class lines. It is time for us to address GBV head-on with the rebuke it deserves. A justice system that does not serve the interests of all or does not take into account the vulnerabilities exposed in GBV is one that has to be overhauled.  It is unacceptable that we find ourselves each year making clichéd statements about GBV, spending vast amounts of money on 10-day campaigns with rising statistics, screaming headlines announcing yet another incident of horror.

In March 2020, a national GBV and femicide strategic plan was developed by the GBV steering committee. The aim was to provide a cohesive strategic framework to guide the national response to GBV. Our hopes and dreams that like myriad other studies, initiatives and frameworks, that it is not banished to the archives with no tangible action being taken.  As Graça Machel said, “We need to stop speaking of violence against women as statistics. Each of those women has a name and identity. Let us find a place to write every single one of their names, so they are never forgotten.” Unlike Beatrice Achike in Chimamanda’s Purple Hisbiscus let us speak up to defeat GBV. 

Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg.  He is the Deputy Chair of the Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution.