In July 2017 then Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa spoke at a Rhema Bible Church sermon devoted to ending violence against women and children. He stated how gender-based violence (GBV) is not caused by a virus but rather societal and cultural influences. The man who is now President understood that we live in a patriarchal society that is perpetuated by gender norms and an unwillingness to speak out against negative or toxic masculine behaviour. He said: “Each one of us, regardless of our upbringing or social circumstances, has been given the power of free will. We can make a decision, each of us, not to engage in violence, not to perpetrate abuse. We are responsible for our actions.”
We have a responsibility in identifying and treating the underlying causes of gender-based violence not just in South Africa but around the world. Recent figures from StatsSA show the murder rate of women increased by 117% between 2015 and 2016/17, a stark reminder of the persistent violence in this country. President Ramaphosa spoke eloquently in 2017, showing us that he understands the core issues, but the above harrowing figures and recent #TotalShutDown march mean now, more than ever, comprehensive action is needed.
The incidence of rape and sexual violence is staggeringly high in South Africa with a 2016 Rape Adjudication and Prosecution Study (RAPSSA) report found that between 2008 and 2015, 432,834 sexual offences were reported across the country. This figure is seen to vastly underestimate the true population-level incidence of sexual violence and rape due to under-reporting by survivors.
Population-based research found that between 28-37% of adult South African men disclosed having committed rape. Over half of them did so while they were teenagers, and half the men who admitted having raped, did so more than once. Further research shows that approximately one in 10 men have been involved in gang rape where perpetrators can sometimes be children and take part to prove their masculinity to one another. 2011 census data shows that 94.1% of rape survivors were female, 46% of whom were children (under 18). Perpetrators of rape accounted to be 99% male while female perpetrators mostly did so in groups of other men. If there is disagreement on the presence of hegemonic patriarchal systems, surely these figures show that the high prevalence of sexual violence is inherently a male trait.
Chillingly, men who identify strongly with having toxic masculine characteristics or gender-inequitable beliefs are more likely to reveal or report having perpetrated some form of GBV. Certain men essentially brag about having perpetrated acts of sexual violence. This shows disturbing and contrasting attitudes which only reinforce rape stigma where some men feel entitled to talk freely about the crime while women survivors suffer debilitating fear and shame. The situation worsens where some women do not report the crime fearing that the police will not address the claim effectively or simply turn them away. Family and community pressure are also known predicators to under-reporting, a cruel outcome that merely adds to the shame and guilt of the survivor.
Organisations that focus on GBV such as rape crisis centres are sadly underfunded. Despite this, they provide critical protection and support to survivors of sexual abuse while calling out for comprehensive reform that will tackle the root cause of the violence. Short-term interventions are not working as they ignore the core drivers of the issue, something rape crisis centres consistently and painstakingly highlight.
In 2009, at least half of women murdered was done so by an intimate partner (where perpetrators had been identified as a partner) in South Africa. In Ireland between 1996 and 2017, of the 216 women killed, 56% of the killers were current or former intimate partners. In the United Kingdom, 113 women were murdered in 2016, 78 of who done so by current or former partners. Globally, approximately 38% of all murders of women are committed by current or former intimate partners. Femicide and GBV perpetrated by intimate partners is a global issue that bridges all socio-economic, racial, age, religious and ethnic divides.
While there are influential factors associated with GBV, research shows that the predominant cause of the violence points to men’s prescribed gender roles, patriarchal systems and toxic/hyper-masculinity. The latter can be defined as complete disregard or contempt for what are perceived to be “feminine” qualities and/or use of aggression and violence to adhere to pre-conceived male gender normative behaviour. Many men set themselves expectations to be successful, strong and powerful, inhibiting any emotional behaviour they perceive to be weak. A lack of emotional intelligence, combined with toxic masculine and gender normative behaviour, can have debilitating effects on men’s mental health and regularly result in emotional outbursts of aggression and violence. These acts can help men exhibit power in the hope of re-affirming their manhood.
The concept of power and its intrinsic relationship with toxic masculinity is a common output where certain men enable their sense of superiority over women and, in some cases, other men. Focusing on the effects on women, masculine power can be exhibited in many ways and are certain to solicit a response that many women experience: powerlessness. These actions regularly unfold in daily life that many of us have witnessed: unwanted advances in public, being groped at a club, cat-calling, being followed and shouted at while walking home. While not being physically violent, these actions can have negative psychological consequences for women, sparking an immediate sense of fear and unease.
We cannot deny that the above behaviours exist. Advice such as telling women to be more careful or avoid certain streets, while seen as protective, are not solutions as they ignore the fundamental drivers of GBV. Women should feel safe when they walk anywhere and not be shackled by fear. The root causes of GBV must be addressed if we are to make any satisfying progress in combatting the violence.
The values set in the South African constitution assert that no one should be discriminated against based on their gender or sex. Education reform must enshrine these values and consider adopting Unesco’s international technical guidance on sex education. It shows that comprehensive sex education (CSE) has positive effects on young people and their attitudes towards sex, gender, consent, STIs, unintended pregnancies, GBV and gender equality. It also provides a safe space for young people to talk about their feelings and attitudes which will be critical in the emotional development of a child. According to Unesco, children between the ages of five and 13 spend most of their time in a school which provides an opportunity to reach them in their formative years. Teachers and schools must be supported by providing additional resources and training, so they can feel comfortable and confident in teaching robust and accessible CSE.
New focus must be put on crime prevention over crime fighting. Simply increasing the numbers of police officers does not directly result in improved policing outcomes. Leading up to 2012, increasing the number of police officers did not seem to have had an impact on reducing serious violent crimes. With quality sacrificed over quantity, the South African government must focus on improving policing standards through community policing and outreach. Punishment for crimes committed must run parallel with rehabilitative measures to prevent recidivism. Male targeted programmes, such as One Man Can show some benefit of masculinity-focused interventions and how they affect male attitudes towards gender-norms and sexual violence. The South African government must embrace new ways of thinking and show a willingness to invest in evidence-based measures that target the source of the problem.
Furthermore, in line with the resolution adopted at the ANC’s December 2017 conference, the government should consider de-criminalising sex work so that sex workers can have more legal protections as well as be able to access essential health care. The continuing criminalisation and subsequent violent intimidation of sex-workers pushes them further underground therefore increasing the likelihood of dangerous practices. De-criminalisation, while providing structural support, has shown to decrease STI prevalence, particularly HIV, and an overall decrease in the risks faced by sex workers.
While incidents of sexual violence can occur within any socio-economic division, rape is “more common in a social context of poverty where unemployment is high”. In this context, interpersonal violence is rife, and men organise into social gangs that can lead to incidents of group rape. In high unemployment areas, chances of marginalisation increase with poorer access to services and care for survivors. In a country where income inequality is at a very high rate, more must be done to mitigate the effects of poverty. Gender-focused labour initiatives must support women by providing sustainable employment and help tackle gender unequal households where women are expected to act in a subordinate role. With the assistance of community policing and outreach, we can reduce gang related incidents of sexual violence by providing more opportunity to young men and women who feel society has left them behind. Alleviating poverty will not solve GBV or domestic violence, but it will certainly help in reducing cases.
With the rise of women’s movements, particularly in the advent of #MeToo, there is a growing perception that men are being attacked and demonised. Not only is this a fallacy, it shows a complete contempt for the abundance of evidence on sexual violence. The women who participated at the #TotalShutDown march, and men who supported it, know the evidence is clear: women disproportionately suffer sexual and domestic violence at the hands of men. It doesn’t happen because of what she wore or how drunk she was. It happens because men make a conscious choice to do so.
As men, we must acknowledge that certain male culture is at the heart of the problem. We can no longer stand by when we see toxic or violent behaviour towards women and must challenge it at every step whether it be an acquaintance, stranger or family member. Toxic masculinity has no place in South Africa or anywhere else. Men must be active participants in shaping the future of masculinity, one that is based on equality and respect. The passion and willingness for positive change will always resonate and enable those who feel they have no power, to be at the forefront. In President Ramaphosa’s own words:
“It’s time for all of us to change our ways. The campaign to end violence against women and children begins with you and me. Let us all take responsibility.” DM
Cormac Smith is a Research and Advocacy Officer at the Southern African Liaison Office (SALO)
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