OPINION | Vickashnee Nair: Taking stock of GBV in South Africa – has there actually been progress?

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Students place flowers at the commemoration service for the second anniversary of the murder of Uyinene Mrwetyana at Clareinch Post Office on August 24, 2021 in Cape Town.
Students place flowers at the commemoration service for the second anniversary of the murder of Uyinene Mrwetyana at Clareinch Post Office on August 24, 2021 in Cape Town.
Photo by Gallo Images/Brenton Geach

Those who continue to see news stories of women battered and murdered can feel disillusioned and say that no progress has been made, as we sit with the heaviness and trauma of it all, writes psychologist Vickashnee Nair. 

As we pass on the anniversary of Uyinene's murder two years ago, it is a time of reflection for the state of gender-based violence (GBV) in South Africa.

In 2019, the 24 August marked a period of conversation, anger, frustration, protest and unrest. People came together to discuss the scourge of GBV in South Africa, students on campuses held vigils, and people flooded social media with content regarding it. This period was not the first of its kind, just one among thousands of cases of violence against women and children in South Africa's long, difficult journey with GBV.

What has remained and perhaps even worsened is the collective trauma of the country regarding GBV and the severity of cases. Social media timelines are still awash with stories of women, children and those belonging to the LGBTQ+ community, who have been attacked, brutalised or murdered. The sheer violence and shock of such stories bring forth cries of disbelief and anger. How does South Africa as a country go through such trauma with persistence to challenge this pandemic?

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Much has happened since that month of August in 2019, we have suffered an international health pandemic and it had disastrous consequences on GBV in South Africa. Recently, SAPS have released updated stats from the first quarter of 2021 and the increase is staggering. In terms of sexual assault, it has gone up 74.1%, with rape specifically going up 72.4%. Although, one must always keep in mind the factor of under-reporting, which is rife, and other obstacles that may affect reporting in general. The question, therefore, stands: what progress has been made since people took to the streets in 2019 to make their objection about the state of GBV heard and seen? This may depend upon who you ask, but progress is a tricky concept to measure and conceptualise.

Generational trauma 

What the GBV conversation in 2019 illuminated was that the citizens of South Africa had reached boiling point, and just how much trauma there was hiding in plain sight. So many women had come forward to share their stories, and it had also triggered many old traumas for many. What many in South Africa know to be true is that GBV has been pervasive across generations. Grandmothers, mothers, daughters all have stories to relate of their experiences with it.

Many hold the trauma their female ancestors held, which sometimes worsens over generations. This is especially significant as we come towards the end of Women's Month in South Africa, which is a time for contemplation on such inherited trauma. There are still perpetrators that shall go unpunished, and victims who remain silent for many reasons, but this is a legacy that has sustained. Despite this, there has been increased visibility, discussion and awareness about such issues. Still, there is much that needs to be done on this in communities where silence still reigns.

NGOs, not just in South Africa, but in other African countries, have made daily strides in terms of working with those affected by GBV. The Covid-19 pandemic proved a unique obstacle to many NGOs, who had to find creative ways to reach those who needed help. This still continues to be the case for many women and children, as access is still a prevalent issue.

GBV is a complex issue and this is widely agreed upon. There are a multitude of factors that contribute towards it, which can include cultural, social and economic aspects, to name a few. Often, interventions and efforts are aimed at such factors that have been identified, although this is hard work. Interventions that are resilient and impactful are the golden standard, but often take time, resources and effort to make it work. This has been happening at the grassroots level, and has always and shall always occur due to the continued effort of so many who are activists for this issue. This is where the progress and small wins can be seen. 

Progress achieved 

Leading back to the complexity of progress, again this depends on who you ask. The woman who survived an abusive relationship, and found shelter with her children through the help of a local NGO, as she rebuilds her life can say that this is significant for her. While another woman who might still be in one, may feel stuck with no hope. Those who continue to see news stories of women battered and murdered can feel disillusioned and say that no progress has been made, as we still sit with the heaviness and trauma of it all.

On such a multifaceted issue, can all not be true? We can sit in the progress and no progress conflict, still acknowledging that there is still much to be done and ground to be won.

This, therefore, leads to a call for action, and what people can do. It is often unfair and an oversimplification to focus on mobilising only women on such an issue. It is a multipronged approach that speaks to all genders and communities that need to have a stake in these conversations as it is truly pervasive across all groups of people.

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Masculinity has a seat at the table in such discussions, as it is considered a large driving force of such violence, meaning that men have to be conscientised and speak to this ill. Marginalised communities are affected too, such as the LGBTQ+ and disability communities, sometimes quite disproportionately in South Africa, and they have much to share in this fight. Once we acknowledge that this is something that truly affects everyone, especially those who are vulnerable and disenfranchised, then the work begins.

The importance of small actions 

Progress can look like small actions which have ripple effects, such as protesting "locker room" talk when we hear it, calling someone out on a sexist comment at the family dinner table, sharing something on social media or offering someone a safe space to share their experiences. But also, to keep the big picture in mind, although this is often the biggest site of frustration for many. There can be narratives of anger with the government, the rights gap present between our advanced Constitution and law, and the actual lived experiences of people, and the pessimistic feelings that come with feeling stuck in this present reality solidified by SAPS statistics. This is all valid and real, but not an immovable fact. There is room for change and for transformation.

So truly, has there been progress? In some sense, yes, and across generations, definitely. Many young women today can agree that their experiences are vastly different to that of their grandmothers. Women today have increased mobility and agency, which has made waves in terms of advancing women and children's rights. 

But there is still trauma and healing that needs to be acknowledged, especially as a nation. To have such trauma dredged up each time a story like Uyinene’s comes up in the public eye tells us how much emotional processing and healing still needs to happen. When faced with such horrific violence and the unthinkable, as South African people we always hold this as a collective. But that is not to say that we should normalise it, because to do so would be to accept it and gloss over it. It should not be our normal, nor that of future generations.

- Vickashnee Nair is a counselling psychologist in Bryanston and an executive member of the Southern African Sexual Health Association.

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