The state of violence against women

2017-11-26 06:13
Singer Cicion crutches after a pelvic replacement operation she underwent after she was assaulted, allegedly by her then boyfriend Kwaito musician Arthur Mafokate.

Singer Cicion crutches after a pelvic replacement operation she underwent after she was assaulted, allegedly by her then boyfriend Kwaito musician Arthur Mafokate.

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What does a perpetrator of violence against women look like?

For many, the question evokes images of creepy strangers lurking in dark alleys or unkempt, drunken husbands stumbling home from the local tavern.

These stereotypes have long been challenged tirelessly by feminists and women’s rights organisations, especially during Women’s Month or the 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children, this year’s campaign for the latter having started yesterday.

Statistically, women are more likely to be assaulted by someone they know. Domestic violence is also perpetrated by good-looking middle class professionals and high-level politicians. Debunking these myths is therefore a crucial tool in the fight to end violence against women.

However, in all these vital and urgent conversations about the true face of the perpetrators, there is one perpetrator that remains largely invisible – the state and social institutions.

Violence does not exist solely in interpersonal relations, but in the circumstances that facilitate it, and the systems and structures that excuse it. In some cases, the very laws designed to protect women from violence can, in practice, enable it.

A good example is the criminalisation of prostitution which, in many ways, limits prostitutes’ ability to work safely and without fear of violence from clients and state agencies.

Women’s experiences of such state-sanctioned violence, of course, differ based on individual identities and, predictably, those marginalised elsewhere are both hardest hit and affected in unique ways.

The Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation’s recent research on violence against women indicates how those living in poverty and who lack economic opportunities may find themselves trapped in abusive relationships. The the blesser-blessee phenomenon is one such consequence.

Sadly, these realities remain all too common in women’s lives. For many marginalised women, the price of reporting sexual assault may be hours of travel and waiting for attention, unsympathetic treatment from the police and medical personnel, and a negligible chance of seeing a known perpetrator convicted. Moreover, having finally been medically examined to prove the abuse, women must still go elsewhere for treatment as medico-legal work usually does not include any treatment for the physical or psychological consequences of sexual assault.

All of the above reminds us of the same thing – the reality of state institutions as sites and perpetrators of violence.

The coercions and oppressions of women

Again, the way religion has been and continues to be used to control women is one of the biggest challenges they face.

The role of culture and tradition has a similar effect. Both these institutions have continued to control and manage women’s sexuality and autonomy. They legitimise the coercions and oppressions of women, and essentially locate women as inferior, minors and fundamentally unequal in relation to men. This is justified as what was intended by “God”, by the ancestors and by those who have gone before us – the way it has always been.

Examples include the social belief that once lobola has been paid, the man has the right to “discipline” his wife and children, even if it means violence in all its forms. The grandmothers, aunts, mothers, sisters and friends who form the traditional family circle and act as advisers for young brides echo these sentiments in their teachings. In this way, male domination and hegemony are instilled from a young age, enabling the cycle of violence to be perpetuated.

This inadvertently makes all the different players complicit in the subsequent violence that takes place, by creating an enabling environment for it to thrive.

Religious institutions have not been spared this reality, with reports of abuse by clergymen and “men of God”. The arrest of Durban-based pastor Timothy Omotoso on human trafficking and sexual assault charges in May is a case in point.

Once again, the very men entrusted with being leaders of thought and our moral consciousness become the perpetrators of violence.

To this end, society has the mandate to question the role of the church in promoting violence against women, and to investigate the abuses that take place within the church.

As a nation, we need to look critically among ourselves to find the loopholes that institutional perpetrators of violence against women take advantage of. Institutions and structures that aid violence must be exposed and held to account. As a society, we have to eradicate violence against women. We must find the courage to turn away from the norms and ideologies that perpetuate the abuse of women.

Public institutions, including the police and the judicial system, are mandated to ensure that women are protected from abuse and that cases do not go unreported or unpunished. Even simple reforms of police at a basic level, such as ensuring survivors can speak to a female officer at a police station, or providing speedy access to transport them to safe places, can make a huge difference in helping survivors feel secure.

Those charged with taking statements from survivors, including police officers, lawyers or other legal authorities, should receive tailored training on how to conduct the investigation without traumatising the survivor all over again. Police officers who are implicated in incidents of violence against women must face the full might of the law.

While changing the ways of bureaucratic institutions and structures can be cumbersome, without such change other progress towards the protection of women’s rights is at risk. People’s trust and confidence in public institutions forms the foundation for women’s safety and security.

Sibanda-Moyo is a gender specialist at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation and lead author of the study titled Violence against Women in South Africa: A Country in Crisis. Follow her on Twitter @Nonhlanhla17

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Read more on:    violence  |  women abuse

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