The recent upsurge in gender based violence has left South Africa shaken and what many fail to understand is that this type of violence has always been there. It just hasn’t been exposed to this level of magnitude. The current publication of Sunday Times exposed a senior lecturer at the University of Witwatersrand who is embroiled of allegations of rape, sexual harassment and many other sordid incidents. This comes after Wits has just participated in the One Billion Rising Initiative – a global campaign to end violence against women and girls in the history of mankind.
What we fail to see is how we are all responsible for gender based violence in our communities – whether it is directly or indirectly. How many of us know someone who abuses their spouse? How many of us turn a blind eye to the screams of someone being beaten? How many of us pass dirty comments about someone of the opposite sex when they we cross the street? How many of us encourage men to take charge and demand that women become submissive to their partners? The reality is that our country is embedded in culture of misogyny, polygamy, tribalism and the infantalization of women. We see this in political, social and economic strata of our society. We see it in the everyday interactions between men and women of all ethnicities and we see in it in the inequality between men and women. Abuse in many cases in systematic and is a means to re-enforce hetreo-normatives concepts of men being above women and of women being commodities in society. In some cases it is random, but for many young girls, who are abused, they know who abused them and yet their pleas for justice often fall on deaf ears usually due to economic reasons.
The lack of support structure against gender based violence is shocking and yet at the same time not surprising. We see it in police stations where women who have been raped are just not accommodated and told that it is their fault that they have found themselves in this precarious situation. We see it when women are told that it is their fault that they are being abused and that they need to change their behavior in order to fit into the meta-narratives of our disturbed society. Women are told to cover up when going out in public and tone down their demeanor so that they do not attract attention to themselves. Women are becoming trapped in how they determine the trajectory of their lives and conduct themselves in public.
The response from government confirms how the culture of violence against women will continue and how as a society are unable to change the status quo. In a few weeks we will have forgotten about these horrific violent incidents and carry on with life. We will keep silent as we hear the cries of women being beaten in our communities and what is most disturbing is that we know who these people are and yet we do nothing about until we hear a woman has died at the hands of a loved one.
What can we done? It begins with each individual – women need to begin to own their power as individuals and not allow themselves to become subjects of violence. Women need to demand that they are respected and placed in the centre of the economy. It is not enough to have education campaigns, protests and marches, pamphlets, seminars, and many other means of interventions. Men need to understand the consequences of their actions and control themselves – a women’s decision to wear a mini-skirt is not an invitation to be abused. When we hear a women is being abused we never think how that could have our sister, cousin, mother or even grandmother. We don’t think about how the effects of that abused individual are going to impact us all. Many want to make a change and yet overlook what is going on in our own backyards.
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