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The damage wrought by GBV must be spelled out

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Janet Heard is Daily Maverick Managing Editor (Day Editor).

Despite a lot of noise and policy reform, South Africa remains one of the cruelest countries for women in the world. But we need to press on.

First published in Daily Maverick 168

It is good journalism practice to use acronyms sparingly, especially in headlines. They are jarring and unfamiliar to many readers. But, like ATM and SAPS, GBV has become instantly recognisable and is increasingly not spelled out.

GBV is sickeningly omnipresent. On the face of it, the recognition of the acronym is a positive sign after decades of awareness-building and struggle. GBV rolls off the tongues of school kids and talk show hosts. Anti-GBV campaigns are ubiquitous and have been popularised musically – with, for instance, Loyiso Gijana’s recent hit Madoda Sabelani calling on men to catch a wakeup. Politicians tweak and recycle speeches and campaigns from previous years to show their commitment, especially during Women’s Month.

Among these is the emergency recovery plan by President Cyril Ramaphosa, who acknowledged that GBV was a “national crisis” after UCT student Uyinene Mrwetyana’s death last year.

Last week, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate announced a new hotline number to promote access to justice amid a spike in complaints that police were slow to respond during lockdown. In its media alert, it emphasised “GBV” incidents as being one of the key areas of complaint.

Despite heightened visibility and policy reform, societal attitudes and conduct have not shifted in equal measure in the decades since the term was included in the UN Declaration on the Eliminination of all forms of Violence Against Women in 1993.

I recall my experiences as a junior reporter in The Star newsroom from 1988. Public advocacy around sexual violence was in its infancy. After a thwarted physical attack, I signed up as a volunteer at one of the few organisations dedicated to the cause, People Opposing Women Abuse (POWA).

I had been accosted in the women’s toilets late one night by a drunken stranger at the close of a Bayete gig at Kippies. I have the late jazz singer, Thandi Klaasen, to thank for ensuring my escape from becoming another rape statistic. She entered the toilets as he was throttling me. She yelled at my brazen attacker – and his ineffective door-watch accomplice – to let me go.

My service for POWA involved monthly, solitary two-hour evening shifts sitting in a Hillbrow office flat, taking call-ins to the helpline. In my early 20s and ill-equipped, I listened to rape survivors describe traumatic experiences of indifference and insensitivity from police. I would try to empower and offer alternatives to women –  from across the racial and class divide – who lived in fear, being whacked and thumped and bruised and pummelled by their intimate partners.

Back then, there was no such recourse as a protection order. POWA offered a lifeline for a small number of women – a shelter at a secret location in Bez Valley, the first of its kind in the country, that was established in 1981.

To fact-check my memory and take stock of where we are now, I contacted Lisa Vetten, who joined POWA as a volunteer in 1991, “at a time when abuse was condoned as a marital privilege”.

Now a respected gender activist and specialist researcher, Vetten agrees that GBV has become a “respectable mainstream issue”, part of the national political agenda.

We have an array of legislation that is constantly being tweaked – with public submissions made to Parliament this week regarding proposed amendments to the Domestic Violence Act.  We have a myriad GBV organisations and a ministry for women – renamed recently as the Department of Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities – with a mandate to tackle GBV.

When it comes to safe houses, we have progressed since POWA opened the first shelter almost 40 years ago. But, in Vetten’s words, the 90-odd safe houses today were “disgustingly” undervalued and underresourced, a sign that GBV, in reality, is still a blind spot. “To think that what I earned at POWA more than 25 years ago – R1,200 a month – and what many carers still earn [from the Department of Social Development] today, it is often the same pay. That says a lot,” said Vetten.

So-called government-initiated safe houses are all too often reliant on funding from Non-Profit Organisations. Many of them are under constant threat of closure.

And so South Africa remains one of the cruelest countries for women in the world, with sexual violence statistics undermining our redemption as a transformed state, and GBV continuing to make it into the headlines. But we need to press on and imagine a time when we can live in a society shed of fear, where GBV is an unfamiliar, archaic acronym – one that needs to be spelled out for people to understand what it means. DM168

 

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