Why are we still fighting high rates of femicide?
As we stagger towards the end of the year, exhausted but at least relieved that the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic is behind us and life has returned to some semblance of normality (Eskom’s woes notwithstanding), it’s time once again to turn our attention to the 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children. This campaign has multiple supporters, including the South African Government, and goes by various names internationally. The UN calls it 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence. The campaign began in 1991 and was launched by the Center for Women’s Global Leadership (CWGL). It runs annually from 25th November (International Day Against Violence Against Women) to 10th December (International Human Rights Day). It is a worldwide call to eliminate gender-based violence (GBV) and femicide.
30 years of femicide
Think about that for a minute. 1991 was over 30 years ago. Yet the CWGL’s theme this year, in 2022, is a continuation of its multi-year theme: Ending Femicide. After 30 years we are still dealing with the grossest violation of human rights – the taking of life. Surely by now the campaign should have moved on to tackle more subtle forms of emotional violence against women, such as inequality of pay and social oppression. At the very least you’d think it would be addressing behaviours such as coercive control.
#metoo – up to half of SA women experience violence
But the reality is that globally, 27% of women and girls aged 15 and older have experienced physical or sexual intimate partner violence. In South Africa this figure is at least one third or may be as high as 50%. A report was published this year by The Lancet Psychiatry Commission on Intimate Partner Violence and Mental Health: advancing mental health services, research, and policy. It is one of the largest global enquiries ever into intimate partner violence (IPV) and included estimates for South Africa. South Africa is one of the top five countries for femicide, giving us a much bigger problem than most countries. So the theme of ending femicide strikes close to home. But we seem no nearer to moving the dial on this problem than we were 30 years ago, save for the fact that we have more data and more awareness of this issue. But that awareness does not translate to changes in behaviour.
For this reason, as we approach yet another 16 Days of Activism, I feel a certain despair. It would be unfair to say that we, as a nation, ignore the problem for the other 349 days of the year. There are many, many initiatives. Go to any Spar shop and you will see big, bold signage imploring us to “End Gender-based Violence”. Government has introduced tougher legislation to deal with domestic violence and to support survivors. The Domestic Violence Amendment Bill includes new definitions, such as “controlling behaviour” and “coercive behaviour”, and expands existing definitions, such as “domestic violence”, to include spiritual abuse, elder abuse, coercive behaviour, controlling behaviour, and/or exposing/subjecting children to certain of listed behaviours. The bill also introduces online applications for protection orders against acts of domestic violence and imposes obligations on functionaries in the Departments of Health and Social Development to provide certain services to victims of domestic violence.
Symptoms, not causes
My despair stems from the fact that we are dealing with symptoms, not causes. Supporting survivors of domestic violence is essential, and I applaud legislation that makes it easier for women to access services and file for protection orders. But unless we address the drivers of violent behaviour – the causes rather than the symptoms, we will be dealing with its effects for generations to come. And I feel that, despite piecemeal initiatives to work with boys (and girls) in school and encourage respectful relationships and gender equality, we lack a systemic approach to addressing our deeply entrenched patriarchal gender relations and bringing about real social and cultural change. There is a lack of genuine will. Many ingrained behaviours are either so deeply rooted as to be unconscious/unintentional or defended as “our culture”. If they are unconscious, they need to be brought to the surface and challenged.
When it comes to “our culture”, this is a cop-out, an excuse to avoid confronting and changing behaviours that benefit those who embrace those behaviours. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the Nigerian author, says in her now-famous TED talk, “We should all be feminists”, “…culture is constantly changing. I have beautiful twin nieces who are fifteen and live in Lagos. If they had been born a hundred years ago they would have been taken away and killed. Because it was our culture, it was our culture to kill twins…Culture really is about preservation and continuity of a people. Culture does not make people, people make culture. So if it’s in fact true that the full humanity of women is not our culture, then we must make it our culture.”
It’s clear that just making laws to make protection orders available online will not change our culture. Over the 16 Days of Activism For No Violence Against Women and Children, I will be reflecting on some of the ways I believe we can bring about real change in gender relations in South Africa. You may not agree with me, but I hope I will encourage discussion and new ways of thinking in our communities. Come along on the journey with me.
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