The Marikana tragedy at the end of August was a cruel reminder of how the state, employers and fellow citizens treat and fail marginalised people. It underscores how the most marginalised consistently face a multitude of injustices.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, right-wing religious leaders utilised well-hidden hate rhetoric to advance the injustices and oppression visited on the vulnerable with reports on the “culture of death” in our society. These reactions should rather have addressed the reality of injustice in our society – injustices that are perpetuated against the most marginalised: women.
As a movement working on diverse issues and challenging the many injustices that are peoples’ lived realities, it is important to understand that we do not believe in a “culture of death”. We work towards a culture of human rights, a culture of respecting autonomy, a culture, therefore, of life. Any attempt to paint it otherwise is not just inaccurate, it is false.
In the days after the tragedy, the women of Marikana were not supported or visited and they have all but disappeared from the coverage. It is indicative of a departure from the ANC mother body’s tradition of supporting women. The prelude to Marikana was simmering inequality, which has become so pervasive in South Africa that we do not even notice it until it boils over.
Hates crimes against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people reached boiling point this year and some 10 people of diverse sexualities and gender identities were murdered in June and July. The Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa (which includes a member of Parliament) made homophobic statements that have remained in effect unchecked.
This is a reflection of the heteronormative, homo-transphobic attitudes of hate that run rampant in our society despite our constitutional provisions. August, a month for the celebration of women’s rights, saw the continued superficiality and hypocrisy of our understanding of what women’s lives in today’s South Africa are really like. Our rape and maternal mortality data, the rise in apparent hate crimes and the increasing visibility of adverts for unsafe abortions reveal a crisis of lack of access to legal services.
Forced to close
The Saartjie Baartman Centre and the Cape Town Rape Crisis Trust both face severe funding crises and may soon be forced to close, severing a crucial lifeline for many women. Our health system is woefully inadequate to meet the needs of women and girls. There are few places to address violence against women or the sexual rights and needs of women, including LGBTI needs. Services are lumped under a “maternal, child and women’s health” rubric and there is no funding ring-fenced to address women’s health outside of the traditionally constructed role of “mothers” and “maternity”.
September 28, the global day of action for access to safe and legal abortion, is approaching. But even South Africa’s progressive legal framework does not guarantee safe access to all. Women are turned away from safe abortion services, forcing them to resort to illegal and unsafe providers. When challenged about the state’s responsibility to ensure access, the buck is passed around the corridors of the government.
The data of the health department are not clearly measured and recent data show a worrying trend: lumping abortion-related statistics with miscarriages and HIV-related deaths. This is part of a larger trend that moves away from recognising women’s autonomy, as reflected in the Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act, to reassigning women as mothers only.
It is worrying when the health ministry makes judgmental pronouncements on teenagers who have “too many” abortions. It is clear in the ministry’s statistics that there is a huge lack of access to contraception in the context of sexual violence. This is coupled with a severe failing in the provision of comprehensive sex education. It is revealing that only 20% of legal terminations are provided to younger women.
Plans for the decriminalisation of sex work as part of the strategy for key populations under HIV-prevention programmes are commendable. The South African National Aids Council sex worker plan, which the ministry of police and the department of women, children and people with disabilities support, is a positive step. It is commendable that the deputy minister of police met sex workers and paid attention to their complaints about police harassment and violence. Yet there is an apparent backlash: there are recent reports of police officers rounding up sex workers, harassing and humiliating them and unlawfully arresting them, despite the leaders’ commitments.
Most marginalised lesbian and trans-women have difficulty accessing even basic healthcare services. This is the result of a deadly cocktail of stigma and discrimination, which a lack of training and evidence-informed policy has compounded. Homophobia has facilitated a culture of extraordinary violence and hate and the health, justice or safety and security clusters have not met it with effective measures. A blind eye renders these lives invisible.
It is with grave concern that we see a well-financed right-wing Christian conference scheduled for October. It will seek to perpetuate this culture of injustice and oppression through its values of hate and discrimination.
We are a diverse group of women and organisations that support sex workers’ rights, safe abortion rights, LGBTI rights and, importantly, the right of women to exercise autonomy over their own bodies, including their own pleasure.
We call on the state to fulfil its commitments to internationally binding agreements as well as its own laws. We demand access to safe abortion services and HIV prevention tools, including condoms, without fear of discrimination or violence. We demand the protection of all women, including lesbians, trans-women and sex workers, from a culture of sexual and gender-based violence.
We condemn the continued lip service paid to women’s rights and health, which does not translate into implementation or genuine commitment.
It is time that women’s autonomy is no longer bartered in a game of political power that continues to exclude, stigmatise and oppress women.
This call is endorsed by the Triangle Project; Ipas South Africa; Gender DynamiX; WISH Associates; Women’s Global Network for Reproductive Rights; SWEAT; Free Gender; GHMCC; Women’s Legal Centre; the Social, Health and Empowerment coalition of transgender women in Africa; community law centre UWC; Gay and Lesbian Network Pietermaritzburg