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Stop the war on women’s bodies

By: Nomathamsanqa Masiko

Women’s bodies are a battlefield! A site where society throws its’ punches. The proverbial ground on which battles are fought. Everyday battles.

Whether it is government institutions such as the criminal justice system, health and education, or social institutions such as family, community, marriage and the church – all have implicitly and explicitly taken up arms against women’s bodies or are complicit in what is a war on the female body. Women and girls’ bodies are not only the site of restraint and policing, but also oppression, exploitation and gross violations.

A battlefield you may ask? Is that not an exaggeration? Statistics for Violence Against Women (VAW) speak for themselves and the injuries and casualties thereof are too high to refute. South Africa is home to some of the most chilling statistics on VAW:

  • The South African Demographic and Health Survey reported in 2016 that 1 in 5 women older than 18 years have experienced physical violence;
  • The 2009 Medical Research Council Study 2009 reported that 3 women die at the hands of their intimate partner every day;
  • The femicide rate in South Africa is 5 times the global average; and
  • In 2012 Interpol dubbed South Africa the rape capital of the world.

Violent crimes; such as the brutal rape and murder of Anene Booysen and Banyana-Banyana national female football team player, Eudy Simelane, the spate of taxi rapes, the murder of Reeva Steenkamp, the innumerable reports of sexual offenses perpetuated by men of the cloth, and the rape of over 80 scholars at AB Xuma Primary School in Soweto by the school’s security guard all communicate a particular message to women and children. Firstly, you are as unsafe in public as you are in private spaces. Secondly, places that would ordinarily be places of safety, protection and refuge are now the breeding ground for sexual predators and criminals.

South Africa is also home to the rape of women as old as 86, this is evident in a number of cases where elderly women have been sexually violated. Additionally, South Africa continues to experience rape of infants – the incident of baby Tshepang is a case in point, where a nine-month-old baby was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. These statistics and real-life cases reveal the degree to which women and children have succumbed to blows at the hands of men in the country and points to what Pumla Dineo Gqola terms as an “enduring nightmare” in her book, Rape: A South African Nightmare.

It is to be noted that there has been great investment from the South African government in addressing VAW and achieving gender parity, as demonstrated in several national legislative frameworks, the Victim Empowerment Programme, Thuthuzela Care Centres, National Council against Gender-based violence, and the National emergency response unit for victims of gender-based violence. However, the lack of a comprehensive national strategy that coordinates all efforts, combined with funding challenges and organisational isolation, hamper the effectiveness of the goodwill expressed by the South African government in combating VAW. Additionally, non-governmental organisations’ responses to VAW have been premised on service provision, advocacy in the areas of legislation and policy, organisational dimensions of the fight against VAW, training, sensitisation and awareness creation, as well as research. However, NGO limitations, particularly with regards to funding and the sustainability of programmes have affected the effectiveness of their programmes.

The Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation’s social media campaign titled #EverydayPerpetrators #EndVAWNow aptly exposes the way in which government and social institutions have failed victims and survivors of sexual and gender-based violence. Moreover, the campaign underscores how at times, the very laws, policies and institutions purportedly designed to protect women from violence can, in practice, enable it. This campaign is also calling out the various aspects of women’s lives where they find their personal safety and security compromised – be it the criminal justice system, educational facilities, public transportation, recreational facilities, places of worship, or their home.

As we galvanise efforts towards ending VAW, it is imperative that we reflect on the structural, institutional and systematic underpinnings that make female bodies available to violence. The time is now for South Africans to ask uncomfortable and difficult questions about violent masculinities, the power imbalance between men and women, harmful cultural practices, and fundamentally, patriarchal attitudes that are the cornerstone of South African society.

The time is now for South Africans from all walks of life to collectively remove violence and aggression from the construct of masculinity and reimagine men and boys that will silence the guns and bury the spears in the war against women’s bodies. Further, it is important that we interrogate this violence beyond interpersonal relationships and individually-perpetrated violence, but to call out the conditions that enable VAW to take place and the systems and structures which excuse and effectively condone it.

We cannot continue to silence the voices of women and protect perpetrators, because that creates a conducive environment for VAW to thrive. The time is now for the government to establish a comprehensive and costed national strategy that will coordinate all efforts of the various government departments, institutions and programmes. This is an appeal to all members of society and all sectors of society to recognise, and most importantly, begin the herculean task of undoing the patterns of complicity that sustain violence against women.

Join us in breaking the silence through our #EverydayPerpetrators social media campaign as we tackle one institution at a time and demand action to #EndVAWNow.

Nomathamsanqa Masiko is the Advocacy Officer at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation. Follow her on Twitter @Noma_Masiko or @_CSVR

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