Better information is the best weapon to battle violence against women
In the week that the president announced ‘the most far-reaching legislative overhaul in the fight against gender-based violence and femicide’, Maverick Citizen interviewed Brodie about the need for good information so that we ask better questions of the government in order not to receive platitudes.
A casual reader of the news and social media might be forgiven for thinking that a new and terrible crime has recently manifested in South Africa: that women are suddenly being targeted for violent acts that sometimes begin with rape and often end in murder.
In the wake of the international convulsion of the #MeToo movement in 2017 and, closer to home, the Total Shutdown in 2018 and then the high-profile murder of the University of Cape Town student Uyinene Mrwetyana in 2019, there have been several calls for the government to take action against this “crisis”.
This language obscures the fact that women have been murdered for as long as men have been, and rape is as old as history. Since reliable data is hard to come by, and definitions of crimes are seldom thoroughly understood by the public, there is a lot of room for misunderstanding the scope and historical depth of South Africa’s murderous misogyny.
Nechama Brodie has written a book that steps into chaos created by the vacuum of hard information. She says that it’s not that things have “changed so much as we have developed new words to describe it and new ways of conceptualising it”.
Researchers understand femicide well because there has been significant amount of good-quality research into the epidemiology of fatal violence against women in South Africa, but the public doesn’t. We are bombarded by decontextualised information from one side, Brodie says, and frightening anecdotes from the other. She blames the state for its lack of transparency on crime data, but also the more “malicious players” who propagate false claims around race and crime, including claims of a white genocide.
Maverick Citizen interviewed Brodie on what good citizenships around lobbying for change gender-based violence might look like.
Let’s start with “GBV”, the acronym for gender-based violence, which has become shorthand for a lot of things. Do you use the acronym?
I don’t generally use acronyms in my work because acronyms are not the reader’s friend. Having said that, terminology is really important and it’s one of the things that holds us back in terms of being able to make global progress. Terminology helps us define what it is we are dealing with and if our terminology is not consistent and is not shared – which it is not – we struggle to find common ground.
Just 40 years ago, the term femicide didn’t exist in a criminological or practical sense. Nor did “domestic violence”. We create new terms not because the acts they describe are new, but because our understanding of why and how they happen changes and matures over time. The emergence of the term femicide in itself tells us a particular story about how the way we name things demonstrates our changing understanding of things.
Women have been murdered for as long as men have been. But what happened in the 1970s was when feminist activists started to describe femicide as a particular thing – where a woman is killed because she is a woman – it had a very strong socio-political importance because it finally recognised that women were killed in different ways and for different reasons for how men are killed and that it was their womanhood itself that was often the cause for this violence against them. That fit into a broader set of feminist activism movements that was gradually recognising violence against women as a human rights issue.
GBV is a broad catch-all. People think it has a specific meaning, and they often believe, I think, that their specific understanding of what is meant by GBV is what everybody else believes is meant. That is an error. The result is that we see someone on social media saying something like “the law needs to be changed so that there is no bail for GBV”. But there is no legal definition called “GBV”. Does it include rape and sexual assault? What does it exclude? Is it only GBV if the motive is because of the gender of the victim? There are many pitfalls there.
GBV is useful as a kind of socio-political term and catch-all, but once we start looking at actual crime and epidemiology, it is less useful.
How do you engage with false information and fear mongering on social media in your personal capacity?
I can’t respond to every misleading post I see, but when I see inaccurate claims about rape and murder rates gaining significant traction, and that it’s being discussed uncritically, I will speak up.
When people see what they assume is a story about violence committed against a woman, they will often reshare it uncritically. This is a feature of how humans think: that we will pause our critical thinking faculties because we feel compelled to do so by the emotional content of the tweet or the social media post. But that, in fact, should be your clue that you shouldn’t pause critical thinking. That’s exactly where you have to train yourself to let it kick in so that just for a second you can check: is this current? If it’s a missing woman, has she been found? Is this story from five years ago or is it from today? Is it responsible to share this?
Some areas I’ve intervened in the past is where people have posted the identity and the name of somebody accused of rape but who hasn’t been charged at a police station or hasn’t gone through any court process. It’s journalistically unethical to share that information, but civilians are not part of the Press Code. I tell people not to post the identity of an alleged rapist online, or to put out a story online. Not because I don’t believe them, but because I believe them.
I also know that if there is any chance in hell of that case ever getting to court, and the alleged rapist has any resources, his attorney will dredge up this Twitter conversation from five years ago and it will inevitably be used against the victim. I have never seen a news story giving a pre-court account of a rape that has helped the victim.
People spend lots of time poking holes in women’s versions of sexual assault, and one well-meaning but poorly worded tweet can undo a victim’s case entirely.
Sometimes I might also offer an opinion, for instance on the calls for the sex offenders registry to be made public.
South Africa’s sex offenders registry currently captures the details of people who have been convicted of sexual offences against minors and vulnerable people. It does not include people who have been convicted of sexual offences against adults, although proposed changes would include this. A registry can only ever represent people who have been convicted and anybody who works in the space of sexual violence and violence against women is well aware that a large proportion of crimes against women, including sexual crimes, are not reported at all. On top of that, many of those that are reported do not culminate in the successful conviction of the perpetrator. We need to understand from the outset that whoever is listed on that registry is not representative of all sexual offenders. It is representative only of people who have been successfully convicted by a justice system.
In countries that have public sexual offenders registries, recidivism has not necessarily been reduced. Some studies have shown an increase in mob justice and the stigmatisation of offenders or that perpetrators plead guilty to lesser crimes, but not to rape or sexual assault. They might plead guilty to assault, which means there might not be a trial and the person won’t be listed on the registry at all. This is a known outcome: that a number of sexual crimes get reduced to non-sexual crimes. The only thing a sexual offenders register tells us is who has been convicted of these crimes. It doesn’t tell us that anybody who is not on that list is safe.
Even though I work in researching violence and violence against women in particular, I have to believe in my heart that most offenders – there are exceptions, of course – have the ability to rehabilitate themselves. If we cannot agree on that, then what is the point of prison? But a public registry essentially removes the chance for anybody to ever rehabilitate themselves, which I think is offensive at the level of the Constitution. Even somebody who has committed a crime has human rights.
If a convicted sex offender’s name is made public, it could have serious negative consequences, not only for offenders, but for their families and also for their victims.
Calls to make public the sexual offenders registry is like calls for the death penalty. It makes people popular, but both systems inevitably wind up penalising poorer perpetrators more than they would wealthy perpetrators. So we’d see a system where, if you’re middle class you’ll be A-okay, but if you’re a poor brown man, well then, dude, you’re fucked because the system will not serve you.
This brings me to the question of citizenship. Research matters. But does it ever matter to the average citizen’s engagement with the problem will everyone just always cling to their own emotional ideas around crime? Why did you write this book? How must the average citizen engage with it?
That’s a good question. I struggled with this myself and even as I was writing the final chapter I was like “well, what do I want people to do?”
The book isn’t a call to action. There are already many calls to action and, while they’re all well-meant, many of them are deeply misguided, because they are rooted in what people believe about femicide versus what we actually know.
The book is a distillation of my thesis and gives me a chance to answer questions like: How would I describe what femicide is? Is it something new? Is it that women are being killed more often now than they used to be killed?
The evidence shows us that the current level of violence against women has been happening for decades. We don’t really know to what extent it was happening among black women because during apartheid the news didn’t report on it, and the police didn’t report on it, because there was no interest from the state in recognising inter-personal violence that wasn’t political amongst black citizens. We have gaps in our knowledge. Once we start to see a fuller picture, we can think about violence against women differently.
For instance, once you have the proper information before you, you realise that the number of women who are killed every year because they’re accused of being witches is only slightly lower than the number of farm killings, but nobody’s talking about a national witch crisis.
It’s important to contextualise, because although femicide is a global problem, it has unique iterations in South Africa—like the witch killings, the rape-murders of black lesbians and trans women. These are important things to understand because they tell us about our society, and they tell us about how our society chooses to punish women who don’t comply or just because they’re women.
When you have better information, you can make better choices. And make better calls to the government.
My book is not a call to action, it’s a foundational document and it’s a prompt.
Is there any point in doing mass action if the results are words that appease, but maybe not change much?
There is huge value in mass participation, not just for driving awareness, but for creating a sense of unity, making people aware that they are not alone in this fight. It gathers news headlines, and it makes politicians aware. Most of them probably don’t really care, but if they feel that they will get positive or negative attention because of how they respond then that is always a good thing.
Having said that, marches don’t take the place of petitioning to change legislation. I think the marches we’ve seen are often about a mass catharsis, but a mass catharsis won’t cause change.
We need to have different expectations. It’s absolutely fine to have a march that is about releasing feelings and showing social cohesion and unity. But do not confuse that with clear and specific calls for change. Our requests need to be well-worded, realistic and reasonable. Saying “end gender-based violence now” is like saying “world peace now”. Cool. We’d all love gender-based violence to end now or to have world peace for or for climate change to be halted. But let’s break it down into manageable steps.
If you want to take meaningful civic action and cause the state to respond better, then you need to ask the right questions of the state. Ask for small, measurable actions, rather than big, vague ones.
Yes. It would have been great, for instance, if energy had been poured into a march to the City of Cape Town to ask why the almost R13-million that was supposed to be used for streetlights in Khayelitsha was not actually used for lights in Khayelitsha, but for a far wider area, meaning less light for a very high crime spot.
Absolutely. Let’s focus the government’s attention on actions that will make a difference. Let’s ask them to resource our police stations and our police force. To resource our prosecutors, and make sure our magistrates and our courts are set up to handle all forms of gender-based violence. Instead of trying to bypass the system, saying “it doesn’t work”, we have to try and fix these systems, so that they work for women.
Another useful thing to lobby for is for there to be more women in the police, in the courts and so on.
Absolutely. More female police officers at levels of authority would change the nature of the police force. It would lessen the patriarchal and very violent legacy of the police force. More female prosecutors, more female police women, more female magistrates. These are the changes that would have very meaningful impacts on women’s lives. DM/MC
Brodie is a journalist, author and academic. She is currently developing Homicide Media Tracker in order to get a clearer picture of all violent deaths in South Africa. Her book Femicide in South Africa is published by Kwela Books.