Government must lead the fight against gender-based violence

A young woman relates her tale of abuse. Picture: Ian Carbutt
A young woman relates her tale of abuse. Picture: Ian Carbutt

On Monday, the body of a 34-year-old woman was found under the bed wrapped in plastic at her boyfriend’s place in Orange Grove, Johannesburg. He was the last person she was seen with and has since been arrested. Police have not publicly identified the victim.

Her death comes hot on the heels of the gruesome murder of 22-year-old Karabo Mokoena, who went missing on April 28 and whose charred remains were found in a shallow grave. Her boyfriend, Sandile Mantsoe was arrested, following the viewing of CCTV camera footage.

In condemning the death of Mokoena, Police Minister Fikile Mbalula said that “[Mokoena’s murder] should serve as an example to all our girls. Do not subject yourself to abuse from some guy because he has some money … you can die at their hands”. Following his lead, Minister of Social Development Bathabile Dlamini, whose remarks at the funeral were televised, said: “If you don’t break the silence, we are going to count you as statistics.”

This tone was echoed by the minister of women, children and people with disabilities, who stated that Mokoena had become a victim of abuse because she was “weak” (Minister Susan Shabangu has since claimed that she meant to say "vulnerable", not "weak").

What these officials have in common is that each of them runs ministries that are meant to support and secure justice for those who are being abused. It is unacceptable, particularly for those with institutional power, to be victim-blaming when they are the very people the nation has entrusted to support survivors of gender-based violence.

According to reports, Mokoena was turned away by the police and told to “work things out”, because of conflicting stories about the assault. Text messages from her to a friend suggested that by the time she was killed, she had broken up with him, or at least was trying to.

I know how hard it can be to leave a violent relationship. A man I had been with for more than half a decade hit me one night, following a fight. I remember grabbing my children at the first chance I got and running next door. After my neighbour let me in, I put the kids to bed and called my mother to fetch them before calling the police. My neighbour tried to grab my phone, saying I shouldn’t call the police or my family. She told me I was still in shock because it was the first time he had struck me, but that I would get used to it.

Despite the local police station being less than three kilometres away, my mother – who travelled more than 300 kilometres to reach me – arrived before they did.

When they got there, my partner had become very drunk. He was angry at the sight of the police and repeatedly, threateningly asked me “did you call the police on me”.

I instinctively knew that if they arrested him and he was released the next day, I could be in danger. This is affirmed by studies which show that reporting and/or leaving a partner is the most dangerous moment for a woman trapped in a violent relationship.

Still stunned, the following Monday I went to work looking worse for wear. When asked about it, I said I had been in an accident. That was until a former colleague jokingly asked me: “What happened to you, did your man hit you?”

This upset me so much I told a friend what had really happened.

I kicked my partner out of the house, and informed my landlord. Barely a week later my landlord informed me that my rent should have increased by R500 that year, so he wanted the increase for my next payment and that I would have to pay retrospectively. It was clear that he saw a woman who, because she had children, would be desperate for a place to stay.

And he wasn’t the only one who acted differently towards me. After my ex moved out, suddenly men in the street started paying unwanted attention to me. I’d be cat-called and propositioned every time I went out. One night there was someone on our roof. I realised that the absence of a man in the house had rendered me “open game”.

That’s when I decided to move. My partner hit me once and I walked away. Not because I was stronger, wiser or braver than any of the women who don’t, but because I had a community of support that I had not been isolated from and access to resources, things that many women in this country do not have.

Those are not the only barriers faced by women. We are also often pressured to believe that we are the parties meant to be long-suffering to ensure that relationships work.

I was lucky. South Africa’s dreadful stats on domestic violence are pretty well known. According to the Medical Research Council, on average every eight hours a woman is murdered by an intimate partner. Other data also consistently underscores that South Africa is one of the world’s most dangerous places for women facing gender-based violence.

For years a coalition of organisations, spearheaded by Sonke Gender Justice, has been calling for a comprehensive, fully funded national strategic plan to prevent, combat and respond to gender-based violence.

Earlier this year Bhekisisa, a health journalism centre, launched a free helpline called Vimba to support women in Diepsloot who have been raped or abused.

And right now, a group of people have taken up a court case that “could axe a loophole letting sexual abusers off the hook for old offences”. These are but a few of the many initiatives being spearheaded by non-governmental actors.

It is high time the government begins to lead on this. Instead of blaming the victims, our ministers should ensure better service delivery for victims of violence, addressing the critical primary prevention aspect of gender-based violence and rolling out prevention programmes that address harmful gender norms and violent masculinities. We cannot continue to allow institutions to fail women and send us to our deaths, while also failing to effectively support those who survive.

Koketso Moeti has a long background in civic activism and has over the years worked at the intersection of governance, communication and citizen action. She is a 2017 Aspen New Voices Fellow. Follow her on Twitter.

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