Violence against women should be equated with war

Josina Machel. Picture: Leon Sadiki
Josina Machel. Picture: Leon Sadiki

By the end of the day today, five women will have died at the hands of an intimate partner, and dozens will have been raped, maimed and assaulted.

We have to face the facts: Violence against women is endemic and can – and should – be equated with war.

Women killed in incidents of gender-based violence should be regarded as casualties of war and those who have been injured – whether physically or emotionally – should be regarded as survivors of war.

The numbers tell us that only when we change our mindset to acknowledge this state of affairs can the extent of gender-based violence endured by women on a daily basis be confronted and dealt with.

The statistics are stark. The UN estimates that, globally, 35% of women have experienced some form of physical or sexual violence, with that figure rising to as high as 70% in certain regions.

So, as we begin the annual 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children, we need to admit that, confronted with the scale of the problem, 16 days a year is not enough.

Every day should be a day of activism against gender-based violence.

And every South African needs to be part of the effort to reduce and eventually eliminate this scourge, both at home and abroad.

We need to start by honouring the experiences of survivors in the same way that we honour the experiences of military veterans and we need to consciously memorialise those who have been killed in this, the greatest and most enduring conflict of all.

Practically, this means putting systems and infrastructure into place to assist survivors on both an immediate and an ongoing basis.

As a society we need to make an active commitment to take care of the women who have become statistics rather than assuming that a few months of counselling after a gender-based violence event is all that is needed to deal with it.

Victims of gender-based violence, like victims of war, can suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder not only in the immediate aftermath of the incident (or, indeed, incidents), but continually throughout their lives.

Our first step therefore has to be to acknowledge what is happening and to account for it in the way in which we organise our society.

In our planning, implementation and monitoring, we need to adopt a survivor-based approach that centres on the rights, needs and wishes of those who have been through these life-altering experiences.

It is already well established that gender-based violence is a human rights issue and we need to ensure that we treat it as such.

We need to go beyond rhetoric and live the sustainable development goal of “eliminating all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres, including trafficking, sexual and other types of exploitation”.

This means that every child is your child; every woman your mother, sister, wife or partner.

It means that no cry for help should be ignored; that there should always be someone who hears and responds.

In the closing month of the Nelson Mandela centenary year, it is timely to recommit ourselves to living his legacy of service and dedication to the people.

Inspired by Oprah Winfrey, who is a symbol of healing, regeneration and triumph in the face of gender-based violence, let us set ourselves the task of creating a society cleansed of the pandemic that not only kills and wounds women everywhere, but which forces them to lead constrained lives; ever mindful of the threat of violence.

The path ahead is clear and the future is in our hands.

Let us commit ourselves to creating a society that is responsive to the issue of gender-based violence, that is structured to support survivors, that holds the justice system to account on gender-related issues and that works to educate and empower children and young people to create a world in which women need no longer fear for their safety.

Let us also be fearless in confronting the remnants of patriarchy which ensure that women are still not valued as much as men and in which they are expected to be submissive to male authority.

The behaviour that drives gender-based violence is learnt. It’s time we wrote a different script.

What needs to be done:

. We need to bring in and mobilise all sectors – education, health, justice, education, labour, finances, women, social department – to play a part in addressing this from the home to the school to the university to the workplace and back to the home – it’s a full cycle of change that needs to occur, in the home, in the schooling system and workplace;

. We need all sectors to mobilise to have a proper response to it;

. All state and social workers must be sensitised and trained to handle cases of abuse. And more so in the SA Development Community region: governments must prioritise the registration of accurate figures and the number of women affected. We cannot estimate, we need accurate figures to address the problem with interventions that speak to the specific issues;

. We must begin to treat gender-based violence with the urgency given to any other human rights violation;

. Perpetrators of violence must face the full might of the law. Processes must be adequately recorded, the appropriate steps followed and the cases expedited and closed in less than 18 months. Longer processes delay justice and closure for survivors;

. Governments need to increase funding for anti-gender-based violence programmes. Initiatives must bring together government, the private sector and civil society.

Machel is an activist, a survivor of gender-based violence and the founder of the Kuhluka Movement, a non-profit civil society mass movement aimed at combating the violation of women’s rights.

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