The first time I took part in the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence campaign was in 2001. Seven years later, while I still participate, I have started worrying that the campaign, once critical for gender and human rights activists around the world, is not making the kind of impact necessary to end levels of gender violence. There are many who share my opinion; who, like me want to move from talking, marching, meeting and reflecting, to action.
This is why the theme of the 2008 campaign ‘Don’t look away. Act against women and child abuse’ is significant.
Have I become cynical? Is my activism running out of steam? Or am I simply overwhelmed by the enormity of dealing with such high levels of violence against women in South Africa? I don’t know. What I do know however, is that I want to live in a country where headlines such as “Rape victim dives for freedom” and “Woman (71) raped, robbed at home” are not the norm.
Every year, as the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence is launched and runs between 25 November and 10 December our government ‘declares war’ on violence against women and children. Ministers participate in symbolic torch lighting ceremonies, hold imbizos and publically reaffirm their commitment ending violence. Sometimes, 16 houses are built for 16 survivors of violence, or if we are lucky, another much needed Thuthuzela Centre will be launched. But mostly, there are lots of public events where in which we hear how committed government is to ending gender violence.
NGOs hold marches, organise conferences, develop petitions and use the media attention the campaign generates to raise awareness about their concerns and their work. There are so many competing activities – meetings, launches, conferences etc – taking place that one sometimes wonders if everyone is at their own event, are NGOs working together at all?
I believe that violence against women and children should not be viewed in isolation. We need to analyse it in the context of other social ills such as -poverty, lack of education and poor service delivery.
Un-interrogated and problematic practices, which are often described as ‘traditional and ‘cultural’ is another factor that must be considered. This is particularly significant when notions of culture and tradition are used to support and reinforce violent behaviour.
Here’s an example. A friend of mine once reported an incident in which a father allegedly raped his daughter repeatedly. His wife knew what was happening but did not report this to the police. Once my friend reported the matter to the police, his wife refused to give evidence against her husband as she feared both the economic consequence of his imprisonment as well as how she would be treated by her family if she did this. She also truly believed that reporting what was happening to the police was not an option because ‘family problems, should be solved by family’ and not by ‘outsiders’.
If culture is often blamed for contributing to the promotion of violence against women and children, I ask which cultures? As a typical Pedi-speaking young man from the rural Limpopo, I can confidently tell the world that some of us [men] were raised in very traditional families in which women are important members in the family, and in most cases, decision makers. For example, rakgadi or dikgadi (the first born sister of the father) were and are still decision-makers in typical Pedi families; they occupy a place of reverence. This translates into the respectful way in which we men view our mothers, sisters and other woman family members and also into the way we communicate and live our society generally.
In 2007 Deputy Minister of Safety and Security, Suzan Shabangu speaking at a Gender Links cyber-dialogue event, said that South Africans should not look at police statistics and assume that gender violence is decreasing in the country. She made the point that police statistics on their own do not present a full picture because of the many incidents, like the one I described, that go unreported. And non-reporting is not the only problem with relying solely on police statistics; how cases are classified are also problematic as sometimes specific incidents are not classified as gender violence cases because our police is not capacitated to distinguish these cases from other forms of crimes.
I believe in simplicity. I want to live in a world where women and children feel safe. I want to live in a world in which men respect women as equals. I support 365 days of no violence against women and children.
- Butjwana Seokoma is the Information Coordinator at SANGONeT