OPINION | Small steps can help reduce GBV during Covid-19 lockdown and long after

Illustration. Photographer: David Prado
Illustration. Photographer: David Prado
David Prado

Whoever we are and whatever position we hold in society, we all set an example for someone – both the youth and adults. Do we tolerate denigrating names in conversation, or do we ask that such terms not be used, asks Tryphosa Ramano.

How often do you think about that woman who cannot leave her house without make-up; who applies a thick layer of foundation and outlines her slightly deformed lips with red liner; draws in her eyebrows because she lost the natural ones; the one who hides her disfigured eyes behind large dark sunglasses that she wears day and night?

You cannot see this woman because she and her abuser have been locked down in the same house since 26 March when social distancing rules were enforced to flatten the curve of the coronavirus. 

Spare a thought for the more than 2 300 gender-based violence (GBV) victims whose complaints were registered in the first five days of lockdown. Imagine how many women and children will have been abused by the end of the lockdown?

It is no consolation that 148 suspects have been charged in connection with these complaints. But it is confirmation that many women under Covid-19 lockdown face violence where they should be safest - in their own homes. It is proof that the gender-based violence that has long plagued this nation now manifests itself in new and dangerous ways.

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Despite awareness efforts over the last two decades, GBV is a pandemic that has evolved to include not only families or intimate partners, but also strangers. According to the UN an unprecedented number of women and girls are now subject to human trafficking, a multibillion-dollar criminal industry that denies freedom to more than 40 million people globally. The average age of a trafficked girl is 15 years. Can you imagine such a life?

The facts and figures are staggering. According to a World Health Organisation report, more than one-third of women and girls on this planet will experience physical or sexual violence at some point in their lives.

The battle against Covid-19 is the perfect time to highlight the steps we should all take to eradicate every form of violence against women and girls. Everyone in society has a vital part to play in ending this violence and abuse for good.

No wonder UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has urged governments to put the safety of women and children first as they respond to the Covid-19 pandemic.

"Peace is not just the absence of war. Many women under lockdown for Covid-19 face violence where they should be safest - in their own homes. I urge all governments to put women's safety first as they respond to the pandemic," he said.

According to the UN, the combination of economic and social stresses brought on by the pandemic as well as restrictions on movement have dramatically increased the numbers of women and girls facing abuse in almost all countries.

In our Rainbow Nation, women have equal access to education and are increasingly joining the workforce. Awareness has also grown around the issues of violence against women through a spate of legislation aimed at protecting them. But during this lockdown most women and children, who are being abused, are in extreme danger as they have limited options and are at the mercy of their abusers in confined spaces.

What can we all do as we hunker down in our hideouts? A lot. Awareness is vital. Treatment for victims and prosecution of perpetrators are critical.

However, the only long-term solution is prevention which can only be achieved through education and cultural change. We must teach the next generation that civility and respect is better than violence and contempt. 

Abusers were often abused or watched someone in their family being abused. Our children are exposed to domestic abuse. We must take action to end the vicious circle.

Small steps can go a long way to help children understand what is right and what is wrong. For example, most young men are sent off to university and even school without any discussion about what sexual consent means. They are not taught that "no means no".

A short conversation with primary and high school pupils or university students could help change the sexual assault crisis in our communities. Our actions or inaction contribute to a society that tolerates GBV. How many people watch what we do and emulate these actions?

Whoever we are and whatever position we hold in society, we all set an example for someone – both the youth and adults.

Do we tolerate denigrating names in conversation or do we ask that such terms not be used? Do we tolerate catcalls and sexual innuendoes, treating them as harmless, or do we stop to think about how our actions or inaction makes others feel? Do we think about where a harmless joke stops and bullying begins?

Whatever the answer is, we normalise this violence when perpetrators go unpunished, when as bystanders we remain silent, and when we shame, ridicule, and threaten the victims into silence.

The truth is when we listen to survivors, advocate on their behalf, and hold perpetrators of harassment and rape accountable we assert the dignity of women. When we assert the dignity of all women, we push back against some of the worst abuses of this generation.

We require inter-provincial collaboration to ensure women in every part of our Rainbow Nation have comparable access to shelter services which currently vary across the country.

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Moreover, a co-ordinated approach with all nine provinces, which oversee education, could help root out the social attitudes that compound inequalities and create the conditions for gender-based violence to exist. Indeed, GBV is an affront to human dignity. It is a violation of the most fundamental human rights. It is as fundamental as that. We all have an opportunity to reflect about the actions we should take to end it.

Ultimately, it is men that - in the vast majority of cases - are the perpetrators of violence against women and girls. But everyone has a stake in supporting the work to end gender violence and to eliminate the detrimental consequences it has on the well-being of all citizens.

GBV will not end overnight. It may not even end in our lifetimes. But if we keep challenging unacceptable attitudes, as well as abusive behaviour, we might rid our society of this scourge once and for all.

- Tryphosa Ramano is a board member of the International Women's Forum of South Africa. She is also a board member and chairperson of the audit and risk committee of the Solidarity Fund of South Africa.

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