Eleanor du Plooy

'It could've been your sister': Finding new ways to #breakthesilence

2017-08-10 11:08


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It is hard not to be cynical when women’s month rolls by. Media campaigns call on us to #breakthesilence and we brace against the inevitable barrage of national statistics on gender based violence. Lived realities are reduced to numbers and pain reduced to statistics. 

But what happens when the television or radio or internet is switched off? What happens when we must deal with the real, harmful manifestations of gender inequality and toxic masculinities in our most intimate spaces? When the numbers are no longer faceless or nameless but look like my father or aunt or the young woman that lives a few houses down the street? 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about the problematic ‘it could have been your mother or sister or daughter’ response when people try to make sense of gender based violence. A sentiment that suggests, albeit with good intent, that women are not first and foremost people but that their value is attached merely to their social identities and its positioning in the world. And especially their value to a man in this world. 
It shouldn’t matter that she is a mother or someone’s daughter. It should matter because she is a human being. 

Sexual violence in its very nature is a direct assault on the social fabric of societies. Relationships become warped and in communities where it is particularly pervasive it leaves very few options for positive role modelling for youth, including children.

There is a need to move beyond the idea of injustice committed against the individual. We must further an understanding that recognises gendered acts of violation and violence as part of a deeply fundamental vector that society tolerates. A violence against entire communities. Communities of young women. Older women. LGBTQI persons. And even violence against men in the form of setting a false standard imbued with the harmful notions and expressions demanded by toxic and fragile masculinities. 

Every single attempt or effort at making gender justice a reality should – must – include the family and community. When we hear accounts of violence perpetrated against women and children we are quick to be outraged, and rightly so. But do we take the time to reflect on the norms and practices in our own communities, streets and homes? Do we ask of our brothers, fathers and sons how complicit they are in creating violent patriarchy? 

Do we as women, whether trans, cis, black, white, rich or poor, ask ourselves how our actions (or inactions) contribute to that? How we ourselves act and talk and think and behave in a way that contributes to the terrifying architecture that sustains the design of a culture of violence and oppression of women? 

One of the barriers to advancing gender justice and reconciliation is that it often gets reduced to being a ‘women’s issue’. This understanding of gender justice implies that the experiences of women are universal. It is important to note that not all women experience conflict or violence in the same way and that our experiences vary according to age, race, class, location and education. 

This is where an intersectional approach becomes crucial. It acknowledges the interplay of all our differences, and forces us to challenge the assumptions we have of women particularly as it relates to the juxtaposition of women as victims and men as perpetrators. 

For us to effectively promote gender justice and reconciliation within society we need a deeper understanding of how South African communities make sense of gender based violence and to adopt approaches which are participatory, cooperative and community-led and which are cognisant of local norms and traditions. 

So, yes, we must #breakthesilence. But I think we should do that in new ways, where women aren’t revictimised, where pain is not monetised.

Where by our very vulnerabilities we and others on the sharp end of gender oppression and violence become mere objects to be protected. Where women’s month is not just about talking about gendered violence or shoving horrific stats under our noses only to be forgotten when September arrives. 

We need to #breakthesilence by creating pathways to fundamentally shift conversations – in schools, homes, churches, mosques and synagogues, in gyms and rugby clubs and on the golf course – that destroys our implicit complicity in a system where gender based violence are akin to that of countries at war. 

As South Africans we must do better. We deserve better. Not because of whose son or daughter it is. Because we are people, deserving every dignity and possessing a fundamental right to live without pain and harm. 

- Eleanor du Plooy runs the Ashley Kriel Youth Desk at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.

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Read more on:    gender based violence  |  women's month


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