OPINION | Gender-based violence: Lessons from a pandemic

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Protesters wearing face masks to protect against the coronavirus, seen during a gender based violence protest outside parliament on June 30, 2020 in Cape Town. Photo by Nardus Engelbrecht/ Gallo Images via Getty Images
Protesters wearing face masks to protect against the coronavirus, seen during a gender based violence protest outside parliament on June 30, 2020 in Cape Town. Photo by Nardus Engelbrecht/ Gallo Images via Getty Images

There are some lessons that were learnt in dealing with a pandemic that can be applied to dealing with the scourge of gender-based violence, writes Francis Petersen.

We are currently witnessing a time of the year that has become associated with intense campaigning against gender-based violence.

In the same way, it is also the season for school and university examinations and the annual holiday season. We also seem to have adopted a season for activism.

The 16 Days of Activism period, initiated by the first Women's Global Leadership Institute in 1991, sees countries around the globe staging anti-abuse campaigns from 25 November (International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women) to 10 December (Human Rights Day). 

And while every effort to focus attention on our country's disturbing problem of gender-based violence remains important, we also run the risk of not only restricting our efforts to a certain period of time, but of "normalising" the phenomenon of abuse. 

It is as if we are simply accepting that abuse is as unavoidable as end-of-year examinations or the upcoming holiday season. 

A second pandemic

In light of President Cyril Ramaphosa's acknowledgment earlier this year that gender-based violence (GBV) is as much of a pandemic as Covid-19, it would make sense to evaluate the response to our GBV scourge against the standard reaction to a pandemic of any nature. 

There has certainly been criticism of the way governments around the world have handled the threats posed by Covid-19. 

But I believe there are important lessons we can learn from the way leadership around the globe has dealt with this pandemic.    

Lesson 1: The Power of Priorities

It has become clear that once a threat is identified that is deemed serious enough, it takes prevalence above most other priorities. Action to address this is normally immediate and far-reaching. There is also general buy-in from the vast majority of citizens, accepting that all this is necessary and in everyone's best interest. Only after this all-important first step has been made, subsequent issues such as legislation, funding, communication, and a plan of action can fall into place.

Lesson 2: The Power of Interruption

Once a pandemic is clearly prioritised, it is normally followed by an immediate break from the status quo. This break is sometimes partial, sometimes absolute, but almost always immediate.

It is born out of a general realisation that things cannot continue the way they are. That new ways of thinking about and doing things need to be adopted - and adopted at once. Practices and habits that allow the threat to fester and grow are summarily changed or abandoned altogether.  

When one looks at the painfully slow progress that we are making in addressing gender-based violence in our country, it seems clear that we fall dismally short of the appropriate reaction to a pandemic.

Policy Framework a step in the right direction

Encouraging progress has, however, been made in the pre-lockdown period. 

In May last year, then education minister Naledi Pandor appointed a ministerial task team to look into sexual harassment and violence at universities. One of the areas they assisted in, was to advise the department on the introduction and implementation of a policy framework to help institutions deal with gender-based violence. This policy framework was released by the Department of Higher Education, Science and Innovation in early August 2020.

Another positive development was the call last year by our 26 heads of public universities under the banner of the university vice-chancellors' body, Universities South Africa (USAf), to act decisively in addressing violence against women amid escalating incidents of violence against women on university campuses in the country. 

USAf CEO, Professor Ahmed Bawa, reiterated the need for the kind of "interruption" I referred to earlier, when he said: 

"If we want our society to change for the better, we need to respond differently to the decay that we’re increasingly witnessing in our society. Universities need to lead South Africa towards that change."

Redefining education 

But just how do we do that? 

There are no simple solutions. But I believe a key factor is to focus on prevention and not only on reaction. We need to concentrate our efforts on creating the kind of citizens for whom abuse is simply not an option.

Our school and tertiary curriculums are sometimes criticised for not containing enough practical life skills. And although a lot of headway has been made to address this in recent years, I believe we need to critically look at the value we attach to these learning areas, and re-energise our efforts to communicate them effectively to learners and students. 

In the end, "education" entails so much more than just teaching facts, figures, and concepts. We need to transfer a deep understanding of respect, equality, and tolerance along with our academic programmes.

At the University of the Free State, we implemented our unique UFSS module a few years ago. It is a compulsory module for all study fields and a prerequisite for completion of a degree, aimed at not only ensuring that students are successful in the world of work, but also that they form part of the next generation of responsible citizens in various ways. Initiatives like these need to be copied, continued, and intensified. 

Lesson 3: The Power to Adapt

At a recent protest against gender-based violence outside Parliament in Cape Town, one of the posters caught my eye.

"Being a woman in South Africa is to already have one foot in the grave," it stated.

It saddened and upset me greatly.

In a society that relies heavily on women in a social, professional, and leadership context, we simply cannot afford to have our women exposed to this kind of fearful reality.

And here lies another lesson from the Covid-19 pandemic: how quickly societies around the world could adapt to a new way of doing things. 

A vital pre-requisite though, is general buy-in from everyone involved. 

Women are vital for South Africa’s future

Judging by the pronouncements made by some of the most influential voices in government, education, and civil society, plus the unabated vigour of anti-abuse activists, we seem to have taken the first lesson of priorities to heart.   

What we now need is an interruption of the status quo, a significant and deliberate break away from condoning toxic masculinity and twisted paternalism; from turning a blind eye to even the smallest instance of abuse; from accepting bullying and an imbalance of power; from shirking our duty as educators, simply because it is safer to focus on purely academic learning content.  

And then we need to adapt - systematically and swiftly implementing a culture of human rights, respect, and equality in every sphere of society.

We need to do this, because we realise that there is a pressing urgency that comes with a pandemic. We need to move to a "new normal" where women don't feel that they are living with one foot in the grave. A "new normal' where both their feet are firmly on solid ground, supported on either side by government and civil society - leading balanced lives as caregivers, business and industry leaders, and agents for change. 

We must do what is needed to rescue our women from the clutches of a pandemic. 

Because South Africa needs them.

- Francis Petersen, Rector and Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State.

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