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Opinionista

We need to rethink our fight against gender-based violence to incorporate all of society

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Lebogang Mahlalela is a social researcher and development practitioner. She is Director of Ubuntu Box Initiative, as well as The Gender Gap. Her previous roles include Researcher at the Samuel Centre for Social Connectedness, where she published a report on “Strengthening Leadership in Southern Africa”. She holds an Honours in Sociology (University of Pretoria) and recently graduated from Democracy Works Academy.

A nation so focused on forgetting is unable to tackle the systemic causes of gender-based violence because it does not address its past perpetuation of this violence. It’s time that we start having frank conversations.

South Africa is a nation at war for decades. The enemy has been its women. With the #16DaysOfActivism for No Violence Against Women and Children campaign coming to an end, it becomes imperative to take a moment to rethink, re-evaluate, and adopt a more systemic and solutions-based approach to this “second pandemic”.

The fight against gender-based violence (GBV) must recognise the equal role of business, government, civil society, as well as ordinary South Africans in the struggle. If the statistics continue to rise unabated, then our efforts do not suffice. It is time to re-strategise a way forward.

A number of key areas which can assist in providing a collaborative strategy in the fight against GBV remain unaddressed:   

Government

Governmental responses have often been misdirected, lethargic and even counterproductive, and there still exists a gap between legislation and enforcement. 

Data collection on violence against women should be consolidated nationally and regionally to ensure that GBV in phenomena, pandemics and/or disasters such as Covid-19 must be adequately measured and addressed. This would help identify changing patterns of violence in times of crisis.

However, with the recent cut to the Statistics South Africa budget, which has contributed significantly to the government’s measurement and understanding of GBV, it begs the question – are we not being counterproductive?

To challenge the cycle of trauma and destabilisation experienced by women and children who have to move out of abusive households, alternative strategies of moving the abusers out of the households should be explored, and communities must be better capacitated to support victims and root out perpetrators.

Furthermore, the announcement by Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga to remove life orientation from the national curriculum for grades 10-12 is counterproductive to the understanding of complex social issues for the next generation. Life orientation content should instead be strengthened across grades to include robust engagement on key social issues such as GBV, civic education, racial tolerance and rape culture, which deals with the real-life context of many students across South Africa.

The government must make an effort to identify organisations already focused on GBV, and provide them with tools and resources. Many organisations, such as the Tears Foundation, despite its clear impact over the years, do not receive funding from the government.

Prisoner rehabilitation also needs to be addressed urgently. As seen in the case of Tazne van Wyk, the improper rehabilitation of perpetrators can have devastating consequences for the safety of women and children in South Africa.

While the relationship between activists and the police has been contentious, officers remain frontliners in the fight against GBV. And while there are counsellors available for police officers, when officers use these services, it is put on their record, reinforcing mental health stigmas. In addition, counselling is not compulsory.

The question thus arises, how do we expect a police force, trained to deal with violence and sitting with unaddressed trauma experienced in their work, to respond with adequate compassion and empathy to victims of GBV? SAPS members should be required to attend a minimum number of counselling sessions a year, and in the event of contact with particularly traumatic cases, must report to a counsellor for therapy immediately. 

Business

Too often, corporates and business appear aloof or disconnected from social issues. The fight against GBV must be moved into the corporate space, in changing how companies deal with systemic manifestations and causes of GBV, beyond solely workplace sexual harassment.

As recommended by Marlene Ogawa, director of Synergos South Africa, creating measures of how GBV and gender inequity affects capital and businesses in relation to work efficiency, leadership, organisational culture, growth and overall employee stability, can assist in encouraging increased focus from businesses in curtailing GBV, not only in the workplace, but also in the homes of their employees.

Furthermore, with current physical distancing measures limiting GBV screening opportunities, the government should explore collaborative approaches with businesses such as supermarkets, banks and pharmacies. Business and corporate South Africa share a responsibility and role in curtailing GBV.

Society

It is said that change takes three generations to create. However, with GBV perpetrators being increasingly younger and younger as seen with the Karabo Mokoena case, it is time to engage on more systemic causes and solutions to GBV.  

Our nation has not completely healed from its past. The dehumanisation which took place under apartheid has had adverse effects on the psyche and perceptions of masculinity embedded in our national consciousness. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission inadequately addressed issues around GBV and sexual violence, and our country refuses to fully acknowledge the rapes of female cadres in guerrilla camps.

How then, is a nation unconsciously and consciously practising erasure and amnesia effectively able to tackle the systemic causes of GBV if it is not adequately addressing all of its past, including its historic perpetuation of GBV? It’s time that we begin having frank conversations.

More ordinary South Africans need to take up the call to fight against GBV. We must locate the spirit of activism and change that was ignited in the struggle against apartheid and utilise it in our struggle for the dignity and safety of women in South Africa today. We need to have honest and judgement-free conversations around GBV.

Community education and awareness must be prioritised in challenging norms around gender which may perpetuate rape culture and toxic masculinity, such as within initiation schools and religious institutions. Safe spaces for men to explore and discuss their own masculinities should be encouraged, and community re-education and rehabilitation programmes for abusers should be established in each neighbourhood.

Gender-based violence is a scourge that has affected every South African whether directly or indirectly. Thus, the fight against GBV must be taken up by every South African. It is not only a government or civil organisation issue. It is not only a women’s issue. It is a clarion call to every South African, in defence of our common humanity. Rise, and fight. DM

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