Across the globe, women's rights defenders have been campaigning for an end to violence against women. South Africa is no exception. Workshops, launches, exhibitions, training events and celebrations take place across the country and the region, intensifying during national and global campaigns, such as the 16 Days of Activism to end Violence Against Women, an event taking place every December.
On the surface of it, there is much to celebrate - South Africa's progress towards achieving the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 3 that aims to achieve gender equality and empower women by 2015, included.
However, a closer look reveals that significant obstacles in women's development still exist, and South Africa is lagging behind in reaching the MDG targets, particularly when it comes to the inter-relationship between gender inequality, violence against women and HIV.
We have to urgently address the continuous high levels of violence against women and girls, which have a direct impact on increasing HIV infections rates in the same group. South African women between 20 and 25 years are six times more likely to be HIV-positive than young men of the same age, according to a 2007 study by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) of South Africa.
Many suggestions for how to tackle the inter-relationship between HIV and gender inequality are nothing but superficial, short-term responses. In Mozambique, for example, where widows are 'cleansed' by being forced to have sex with their late husband's brother, traditional leaders recommended dealing with the risk of HIV infections by asking men to wear condoms.
As another example, some international organisations recommend responding to child-headed households - who are mostly caused by HIV/AIDS and run by girl children - by providing “modest levels of material support and training in effective parenting”. Surely this cannot be believed to be an honest attempt at solving the problem.
When two women were stripped and sexually assaulted at a taxi rank in South Africa’s metropolis Johannesburg in February 2008, some politicians suggested it was women’s fault - they should dress more moderately and travel in groups to protect themselves against violence. This is yet another attempt at diverting attention from the real cause of the problem.
Teachers train children to ‘say no!’ to those who want to abuse them, even though it should be obvious to anyone working with children that they don’t have the power to defend themselves against a criminal by just saying ‘no’.
Generally speaking, campaigns to ‘end violence against women and children’ tend to focus on behaviour change of survivors of violence and potential victims, instead of that of perpetrators. The also conflate the terms women and children when the issues facing these two groups require very different strategies.
If we want to make headway towards women’s empowerment and gender equality, we need to start questioning the existence of child-headed households and the 'cultural' practice of rape rather than suggesting band-aid solutions. It is not feasible to give responsibility for saying 'no' to a child with little power or curtail women's freedom for their safety.
Civil society organisations must take on the critical role of examining, evaluating and changing existing approaches to achieve lasting change for women and girls, as well as for men and boys. We must ensure that our work transforms gender inequality, rather than supports the status quo for short-term gains.
We must make the Millennium Development Goals themselves more gender aware, our strategies to achieving them cognisant of gender and our evaluation of progress uncompromising.
- Sally-Jean Shackleton is former executive director at Women’sNet. This article first appeared in the ‘Countdown To 2015’ newsletter, a publication by Inter Press Service in partnership with the Southern Africa Trust..