Guest Column

Saving women's lives – and men's

2013-02-15 23:06

Think about this: in the 30-odd hours since Reeva Steenkamp died, another five or six women have died at the hands of their intimate partners - one every six hours, according to the Medical Research Council’' 2004 Policy Brief.

And most of them - 82-odd percent of the 1 500 women killed each year by husbands, boyfriends and partners - were killed with legally-owned guns (Guns and gender-based violence in South Africa, Naeemah Abrahams, Rachel Jewkes, Shanaaz Mathews, South African Medical Journal, September 2010, Vol. 100, No. 9).

Here's a Proudly South African moment for you: no other country, not a single one in the world, has such a high reported rate of women murdered by shooting – unless that country is at war.

And even in the States, which we’re accustomed to thinking of as a gun-culture, women are killed by their intimate partners at just about half the rate of South Africa.

In the last two weeks, we've been a country in shock as our noses were rubbed in South Africa’s rape statistics (about 65 000 a year, in case you’ve been in Bhutan for the duration, with 28% of men admitting to having raped).

Now the blissfully ignorant have a new set of lessons to learn: about women being killed by the men closest to them. And with the issue of domestic violence raising its vicious, brutal head in connection with the Reeva Steenkamp case, we’ll also learn that more or less every second woman you encounter has experienced abuse of this sort, and 40% of men have committed it.*

As the struggle song says, "Senzenina, senzenina?" (What have we done? What have we done?) 1 Billion Rising is testament to the global prevalence of violence against women, but dear heaven, there's no place like home, is there? (And wasn’t it ironic that on the day of 1 Billion Rising, the news almost around the world led with the death of a woman?)

Is this the freedom that we fought for? Hell no! Women in South Africa are under siege. Women of every class and kind, rich and poor, have reason to be nervous, hypervigilant and fearful, in public spaces and the 'safety’'of their homes.

But when President Jacob Zuma made his State of the Nation Address, at a time when the horrifying reality was so raw and real, he devoted just more than 5% of his speech to making some predictable comments about the issue.

"The brutality and cruelty meted out to defenceless women is unacceptable and has no place in our country. Last year the National Council on Gender Based Violence was established."

Thanks, Mr President: it was finally launched at the end of the wonderful and highly effective 16 Days of Activism (after those 16 days we can, of course, wash our hands of the whole unpleasant subject for the remaining 349 days of the year).

Facing head-on the task of dealing with the enormity and scale of the problem, the Council has met precisely once since then, I am told. (In the same time-period, more than 250 women died from a gunshot by their partners, and well over 10 000 were raped.)

The president pats his government on the back about the re-establishment of the Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Offences Units in 2010, and their fabulous conviction rates: 'During the last financial year, the units secured over 363 life sentences, with a conviction rate of 73% for crimes against women above 18 years old and 70% for crimes against children under 18 years of age."

But we're told by experts in the field that, at least in the case of child abuse, this is because the units select the cases most likely to succeed; for every successful conviction, hundreds of cases are withdrawn. 

I’ll bet the same applies to crimes against women. And stacked up against the massive scale of rape, domestic violence and murder, 363 life sentences looks pretty shabby, doesn’t it?

If it has no place in our country, Mr President, this ‘brutality and cruelty’ you deplore, why don’t you make a real, powerful stand against it?

We've known about it for long enough, heaven knows. This problem is not new. Organisations and entities like the Medical Research Council, the Tshwaraneng Legal Advocacy Centre, Rape Crisis and others have been churning out documents, research papers and policy recommendations for decades.

Here’s what they tell us, Mr President:

Patriarchy is at the heart of this problem.

Oh, there are other factors: poverty and inequality, alcohol, exposure to violence... but patriarchy is the central factor.

South African men, whatever their class or job or race or religion, are raised in a society where they are automatically accorded a dominant status that is privileged and rewarded over women. Men are in charge; men make the decisions. It’s as natural to our society as the air we breathe. Most men (and many women) don’t even see how men are privileged.

But they are. Ask my young township friend who wanted to try her hand at playing the piano in church. The shocked response was, '"BOYS play the piano! Girls must make the tea."

Ask the ad agency executive who has just discovered that the young man in the office next to hers earns 20% more than her – for no other reason except that he’s “got a dick”, to quote the film Made in Dagenham. 

Ask the editor who was told by her publisher that "women can't run companies – they’re too emotional". Or the middle-management woman who was told that "women aren’t allowed in the boardroom"!

We went from the Calvinistic apartheid society where "the man is head of the woman as Christ is head of the church" to a society where modern revolutionaries embrace centuries-old patriarchal values (as enshrined, for example, in the now-withdrawn traditional courts bill).

That’s not unusual. Revolutions and liberation movements seldom benefit women. They are welcome on the barricades but once the revolution is over, it’s back to doing laundry and being slapped around on a Friday night.

Those wild, free citoyennes of the French Revolution were pushed back in their place within a few years, in the kitchen. Stokeley Carmichael, one of the leading lights of the American Civil Rights Movement, famously declared that a woman’s place in the movement was ‘prone’. Iranian women played an important part in the 1979 revolution against the Shah, only to lose their rights thereafter. Egyptian women are still struggling for recognition of their rights in a post-Arab Spring country.

Patriarchy is unhealthy for men as well as women. The ‘tough-guy’ machismo at its core makes men less able to express emotions, to engage in meaningful relationships, to seek healthcare, to opt out of violence and aggression as solutions... there’s a list as long as my arm (see for more). A co-operative society, where the genders play a more equal role, would be less violent (and not just to women, either).

But how do we get there? That takes vision, political and societal will and leadership. And we seem to have a paucity of all three. We have some powerful women and women’s organisations fighting this battle; what we need is men who want a better world for their daughters and sister and wives – and themselves. If we can’t find them in our political leaders, can we find them in civil society? Will these shocking, headline-riddled couple of weeks have raised the ire of decent men and made them understand – and want to fight – the dreadful toll that their fellow men are exacting? I hope so – but a lifetime’s experience has taught me not to hold my breath.


*Every time someone raises these issues, without fail a man will bring up the fact that men get raped and abused and killed by their partners too.

That's true, and we must never forget it. However, research around the world indicates rape and abuse of men by women occurs in relatively small numbers.

In some countries, the difference between genders is not quite so stark. But in South Africa, women-on-men violence is dwarfed by the vast, almost unfathomable numbers where the violence flows the other way.


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