It is a sentence that adorns government buildings around the country, shopping bags, public buses, newspaper ads, repeated in TV commercials, government speeches and private sector pledges: “Stop gender-based violence!”
We know that as a society we must end violence against women and girls. We have known it for decades. Yet, despite a never-ending line-up of public and private sector campaigns, awareness weeks, marches, protests, new commissions and committees, and new laws in the pipeline, three women continue to die at the hands of their intimate partners every single day. This is over and above the fact that 30% of women and girls are regularly experiencing violence – inflicted by men.
In my opinion, this situation prevails because we are directing most of our anti-GBV messages and action at the wrong audience. When was the last time you saw a slogan urging men with anger issues and other iniquities to take charge of their demons and seek help instead of using women and girls as their punching bags?
Instead of tackling the root of the problem, we continue to urge survivors to come forward, speak up, reach out, call a hotline at their disposal, go to the police and leave their abusers.
This speaking-up-and-reaching-out mantra places a large part of the responsibility of dealing with GBV on the bruised and bloodied shoulders of our sisters, daughters, mothers, friends, employees, and others we care about. If you have spoken to any GBV survivor, or if you are one, you know that seeking help, going to the police and leaving an abusive partner is much easier said than done.
Many women find themselves trapped in a web of manipulation, blackmail, threats, guilt, shame and self-blame and are unable to do anything but to hope “this will be the last time”. The culprits are often authority figures they know and depend on – including husbands, boyfriends, fathers, relatives, colleagues, bosses – making it even more impossible to do anything but to keep quiet.
What is not helping are low conviction rates. In September 2020, Bheki Cele identified 30 gender-based violence lockdown hotspots, including five of the communities in which Afrika Tikkun operates, such as Alexandra, Mfuleni and Orange Farm. Of the 4,058 people, mainly men, arrested for gender-based violence since the beginning of lockdown, only 130 have been convicted. That equals 3%. This needs to be addressed.
In the meantime, we need to strengthen the law to both protect women and girls and deal with perpetrators more effectively. This will encourage survivors to come forward, tell their stories, press charges and rebuild their lives. We do not need more speeches, promises and lowering the flag. We need action.
Where do we go from here, as members of society? First, we need to come to terms with the fact that gender-based violence doesn’t start with a black eye, or worse. It begins with how some men view women, speak about and to them, treat them, ridicule them, refer to them in casual conversations, exclude them, catcall them, disrespect their boundaries and jeopardise their equal place in society.
What makes the above worse is that society often lets culprits off the hook in the name of culture, tradition, loyalty, shame, guilt and family ties, and because of age-old and flawed “boys will be boys” and “this is a domestic issue, don’t get involved” notions.
We, especially men, must acknowledge these exceptionally uncomfortable truths if we want to save lives. Yes, I am addressing this to my fellow men, particularly those who consider themselves Good Men.
South African women have tried for decades to protect themselves and make men change their ways. They have pleaded, negotiated, begged, asked, dressed down, protested, toyi-toyied, and shouted from the rooftops. They have bought pepper spray, learned how to shoot guns, are avoiding the streets at night, and are watching their drinks in bars. They have installed panic buttons on their phones and are continually looking over their shoulders to see whether they are safe – from men.
What are we doing to help them, over and above not raising our fists and voices? Just because we have never used violence against a woman, degraded her, and coerced her into sex she didn’t want doesn’t make us Good Men if we have ever made apologies for or turned a blind eye to transgressing friends, relatives, fathers, and colleagues. Your friend or brother may be a nice guy to you, but if he makes sexist jokes, doesn’t keep his hands to himself, and treats his partner or any woman with disrespect, he is not a nice guy.
We can and must do better. It is not survivors who need to speak up. It is us. Not because she could be your sister, mother, or daughter, but because she is a human being. DM
Sipho Mamize is the general manager at the Wings of Life, Afrika Tikkun Diepsloot Centre. He has a BA from the University of Limpopo, a post-graduate diploma in public health and an MBA through Regenesys Business School. He serves in an advisory role at the South African Council of Social Services Professionals, an industry body regulating social workers and related professionals in the psychosocial support space.