OPINION | Irene Charnley: Into what barbaric abyss are we descending? GBV horrors beg this question

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Spotting the red flags early can help you get out of a relationship before it turns ugly.
Spotting the red flags early can help you get out of a relationship before it turns ugly.
Sharon Seretlo

Sexual violence takes away the right to dignity of a woman, let alone the right to personal liberty and security to enjoy freedom of movement, whether at West Village or anywhere in our country, writes Irene Charnley

"41 695 rape cases were reported over the past year. Happy Women's Month in the rape capital of the world," screamed a social media message hash-tagged #standup.

"Nothing happy about women's month in South Africa. We continue to be under siege," was one of hundreds of comments from one social media enthusiast.  

Once again, the unpleasant reality of the appalling gender-based violence and femicide (GBVF) cases in our country has been brought to the fore by the rape of eight models, some of them virgins, shooting a music video in West Village outside Mogale City. A few days ago, two Grade 12 schoolgirls were attacked with an axe while in their student accommodation in Ngwangwane village, in the Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma local municipality in southern KwaZulu-Natal. It is alleged a man entered a rented house, killed the girls, and dismembered their bodies. 

GBV emotional scars 

Just as we celebrate the 2022 Women's Month with the theme "Women's Socio-Economic Rights and Empowerment: Building Back Better for Women's Resilience," the rate of GBV as well as the failure of the criminal justice system to curtail the crisis, suggest an unacknowledged gender civil war, even if President Cyril Ramaphosa called it a pandemic. 

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Spare a thought for the above sarcastic social media messages. A woman experiences the most terrible ordeal of her life, a rape so brutal that the physical wounds take months if not years to heal, and the emotional scars much longer, sometimes her entire life.

The West Rand episode is just one out of many such sordid rape tales that have come up of late. No wonder residents of West Village say the government is simply not doing enough to ensure that women are safe in South Africa. They say crime against women has become a norm. 

The GBVF epidemic sweeping across our nation with impunity tells it all: These days South Africa is no country for girl children and women in general.

Sexual violence worse than death 

For women, sexual violence is not called a fate worse than death for nothing. Those of us at the International Women's Forum South Africa, the local division of a global organisation of over 7 500 pre-eminent women of significant and diverse achievement from across 36 nations and six continents, who know women who have suffered it, like the eight models filming a movie, understand that only too often something within them does indeed die. 

Actually, all peace, all security and sometimes all chances of happiness, has been destroyed by the sexual violence they suffered allegedly from the illegal miners, the zama zamas. 

Though a global phenomenon, the appalling GBVF just as we celebrate Women's Month has to do with the attitude of the perpetrators, the lacklustre response of law and order agencies and officials and the absence of institutional supportive system to help the victims remain a challenge.

ALSO READ | Cyril Ramaphosa: GBV remains biggest obstacle towards achieving meaningful gender equality

GBVF victims suffer abuse that is worse than physical injury. Sexual violence takes away the right to dignity of a woman, let alone the right to personal liberty and security to enjoy freedom of movement, whether at West Village or anywhere in our country. 

Sadly, the onus of proof lies only with the victims of GBVF. They must provide their underwear and not clean themselves before going to the police station to report the violation, and to the hospital or doctor for hospital tests.

Of course, we have bills, legislations and laws aimed at strengthening the criminal justice. The latest such laws is the Criminal and Related Matters Amendment Bill, Domestic Violence Amendment Bill and the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Act Amendment Bill. 

Highest GBVF rate in the world  

While we welcome these laws aimed at strengthening efforts to end gender-based violence by closing gaps which have allowed perpetrators to take advantage of legal loopholes to evade justice, we need to ask ourselves, why is our country continuing to have the worst known figures for gender-based violence? Why does sexual violence remain a socially endorsed punitive project for maintaining patriarchal order? 

According to statistics, a woman is murdered every three hours in South Africa. The World Health Organisation has reported that South Africa's GBVF statistics stand at 12.1 per 100 000 women, five times higher than the global average of 2.6 women per 100 000.  

Also, Statistics South Africa has reported that 138 women per 100 000 were raped in the country, the highest rate in the world. 

More worrying is that suspected rapists move freely on the streets after committing these heinous acts. Sadly, the prevalence of GBVF calls into question not only our sense of justice, but our civilisation as a people.

When rape victims do have their day in court, they find that their case is judged less by the nature of the harm they experienced and more by the extent to which they are blamed for the assault.    GBV underscores the sorry state of mind of the perpetrators. The blatant way rape is often committed shows that perpetrators still operate in a distorted mind-set of women as assets to be used and dispensed with at will. In this day and age, there are many who still believe that women or girls invite to be raped by wearing provocative clothing, in most cases short skirts or hip-hugging trousers.

Our focus  

Indeed, there are no perfect solutions that can wipe out GBVF, but a significant part of the problem can be addressed by changing traditional gender role socialisation that puts females in the position of being vulnerable to sexual abuse.

Our focus in dealing with the evil of GBVF needs to be a larger focus, concentrating not only on the individual rapists and the victims, but also on the cultural underpinnings that foster a rape mentality and culture leading to sex crimes.

For me, the GBVF culture is the normalisation of sexual violence due to societal attitudes and cultural perspectives that addresses the sex roles as part of our patriarchal society. The sexual violence culture is primarily rooted in self-entitlement and a genuine disregard for a woman's wellbeing.

Until some men begin to look at a woman as a human being like them - with dignity, greatness, and worth - there can be no respite from GBVF in our country.

ALSO READ | Mashupye Maserumule: Stop casting women and children as vulnerable if we going to stop GBV

Unless some men realise that the pain they inflict on women and girls is as painful as those they experience in their own body, and the shock, anguish, humiliation and trauma she undergoes in their hands are unwelcome to society, no rapist will refrain this inhuman brutality they inflict on women.

One solution is for schools, colleges and universities - apart from taking learners to academic excellence - to embrace a grave responsibility to provide them with sound moral education, sexuality education and instil in them respect for girl child, women, the elderly and every fellow human being who shares a common humanity. 

 GBV, culture and sex education 

The dangers of GBVF should be taught as part of sex education at primary and high schools, and even universities, as an effective means of countering the rape culture entrenched in a patriarchal system.

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Our future generation must be taught a clear distinction between the right and wrong behaviour, the importance of self-restraint and the dangers of perpetuating male chauvinism at the expense of women's right and dignity.

We as parents, educators, and policymakers, all have a role to play fighting patriarchal tendencies; become anti-GBV activists in our homes, communities, work and positions; challenge cultures and practices that perpetuate gender inequalities; avoid looking away and reporting abusers; being sensitive and supportive to victims of sexual violence; and teaching our children values of respect and gender equality.  

Let it sink in that all of us have a role to play in confronting and eliminating gender-based violence in our society.

Happy Women's Month anyway.

- Irene Charnley is a successful businesswoman and President of the International Women's Forum of South Africa.

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