End the war on women's bodies
November 25 marks the beginning of the 16 Days of No Violence Against Women Campaign. Since 1991, the 16 days have been used as a global organising strategy by individuals, civil society and governments to call for the elimination of all forms of violence against women.
Yet 23 years later, we are tempted to despair at a losing battle.
The statistics are frightening and qualify gender-based violence as a pandemic.
In Southern Africa, six countries have conducted baseline studies on violence against women, revealing that gender-based violence is pervasive. The highest prevalence is in Zambia, where 89% of women have experienced violence, 86% in Lesotho, 68% in Zimbabwe, 67% in Botswana, 50% in South Africa and 24% in Mauritius.
The studies reveal something even more disturbing: the men interviewed not only validate these figures but in some cases exceed them. From 73% men in Zambia to 22% in Mauritius, they reported having committed gender violence at least once in their lives. The proportion of men in the six countries who said they had raped is significantly higher than the proportion of women who say they had been raped.
To end a patriarchal social fabric characterised by impunity for perpetrators and the revictimisation of women, we need to understand the problem. Gathering information about gender-based violence in countries where data is missing is crucial because developing strategies uninformed by research or lacking comprehensive monitoring and evaluation frameworks is like walking in the dark. Without this information citizens are unable to hold governments accountable.
African governments seem only to undo the little progress we have made. Patriarchal rhetoric is widespread and spending on gender-based violence prevention negligible.
After the elections in Malawi and South Africa, there were declines in women’s representation in government. We await the outcomes for women in Mozambique and Botswana following recent elections, but we can predict a decline in Mauritius, considering that very few women were fielded by parties contesting that country’s coming polls.
After South Africa’s elections in May, the ministry of women, children and people with disabilities was disbanded and a new ministry of women set up. During this change the National Council against Gender-based Violence was suspended.
In South Africa, during a meeting on the 16 Days of Activism hosted by the ministry of women, Minister Susan Shabangu expressed her desire to focus on mobilising men because “men are supposed to be protectors of society. Men are supposed to be protectors of families.”
She went on to say that women cannot be victims any longer, but it is infuriating to hear such victim-blaming and infantilising comments from the minister of women.
Adding insult to injury, other leaders suggested that funding for support centres be cut, and that gender violence be dealt with privately in the home. These statements are shocking, not only because they come from “leaders”, but also because they perpetuate a culture of silence and fuel the dominant form of gender-based violence – intimate-partner violence, which takes place in homes.
In August 2008, Southern African Development Community (SADC) heads of state adopted the Protocol on Gender and Development that, among other targets, aims to halve gender-based violence by next year. The protocol requires all member states to act with due diligence to prevent, investigate and punish all forms of gender violence and provide effective recourse for survivors. Some countries have gone a step further to adopt the 365-Day National Action Plans to end gender-based violence.
These plans are welcome, but seem to have become shelved documents gathering dust. How do these states plan to eliminate gender-based violence when there is little or no baseline data on it? How will they address the problem without realistic targets and effective indicators?
This underscores the need for comprehensive, accurate data. There is an urgent need to establish gender-based violence baselines in all SADC countries and to strengthen integrated, costed planning frameworks for ending gender-based violence. There is also a need for agreed indicators that would be standardised across all the SADC countries.
If we are not armed with this knowledge, we cannot hold our leaders accountable; we cannot demand our rights and we remain at the whims of politicians. Measuring and responding to gender-based violence is part of every state’s obligation, lest we suffer another two decades of war on women’s bodies.
Linda Musariri is the justice officer at Gender Links HQ. This article is part of Gender Links’ 16 Days of Activism series