Let us not submit to a lesser life

2011-12-03 13:29

Last weekend, in an idyllic setting in a beautiful part of South Africa, the reality of violence against women and children was brought home in a staggering and heartbreaking way.

Our family had taken a short trip out of Pretoria, and we were talking with the staff of our guesthouse about our countries, our differences and similarities and, something close to both Americans and South Africans, our families and children. In a quiet conversation one afternoon, one of our new friends mentioned that his young daughter had been sexually assaulted by four men.

What struck us was not his understandable grief for his daughter, but his exhausted acceptance of the attack.

He said, quietly: “That’s the way life is.” That simple statement broke our hearts. As we honour the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, let’s refuse to accept that sentiment, that violence against children and women is just the way life is.

Collectively, loudly, we must say no to gender-based violence in our community.

Let’s pledge to take action to fight this plague. Let’s make our voices heard: violence against women and children is never acceptable.

Last year, the South African Police Service logged 55 097 cases of rape and indecent assault; many of the victims were children and elderly women. At the same time, only 4.1% of reported cases result in a conviction, according to a 2008 study.

Non-governmental agencies estimate that one in four women are in an abusive relationship, but accurate figures are difficult to glean because only a portion of victims report violence to authorities.

This is like a disease – it cuts across borders, ethnicity, race, socioeconomic status and religion. It can threaten women and girls at any point in their life, taking the form of incest, “honour” killing, human trafficking, domestic violence and rape.

The facts are horrific: One in three women across the world will experience some form of gender-based violence in her lifetime. In some countries, that statistic reaches as high as 70%.

In some places in the world, seven out of every 10 women will have been a victim of violence. It is clear that the international community must offer up more than words to answer the call to free women and girls from violence.

We must stand up to the impunity that too often leaves perpetrators unaccountable for their crimes. We must redress the low status of women and girls across the world that renders them undervalued and vulnerable.

Perhaps most significantly, we must support the inclusion of men and boys in addressing and preventing violence. Last December, we were moved to tears as South African actor Patrick Shai wrenchingly described his own role in the cycles of abuse.

Patrick’s own story made the point clear: gender-based violence is a destructive legacy passed from generation to generation, sometimes tolerated by families and communities, but it’s possible to break the cycle. His work with the two-year-old organisation, Brothers for Life, has made meaningful strides reaching out to men to address gender-based violence.

Violence against women and children threatens the very fabric of our communities. The social and health costs that come with this brutality are staggering: when women and girls are abused, HIV/Aids spreads, families are destroyed and children grow up internalising behaviour that perpetuates the cycle of violence.

Abusive relationships do not empower women to discuss prevention with their partners, much less to insist on condoms or monogamy.

When abuse does occur, women need a safe and supportive environment that allows them to report the crime, paired with a secure and structured way for authorities to collect evidence to prosecute the abusers. When we arrived in South Africa in 2009, one of the first community organisations we visited was a Thuthuzela care centre, a network proudly supported by the US.

We saw Thuthuzela’s motto, “turning victims into survivors”, come to life as we heard stories of horror become stories of hope; stories of how individuals were rebuilding their lives with the support of the dedicated professionals who work at the centres every day.

Thuthuzela offers integrated crisis services making the difference for thousands of survivors of assault – one-stop facilities with the goal of reducing secondary victimisation, providing immediate care and counselling, and improving conviction rates?– more than 67% last year. We think there may be no better way to explain what the South African government, civil society and individuals, working together, can do to change society.

It’s simple – to build a future for our countries, everyone must be able to live, learn and work without fear.

Let’s start today.

» Donald H Gips is the 26th Ambassador of the United States of America to the Republic of South Africa; Elizabeth (Liz) Berry Gips has vast experience in international development, education and NGO management.

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