/ 20 August 2015

Our actions shape attitudes to women

The notion of violence as a national health priority has yet to take hold
'No one is giving the Lions any hope, for good reason.' (Gallo)

“I’m going to kill you! I’m going to kill you!”

This shrill and violent threat rang out across the street from my office block last week. I peered up from my coffee on Thursday morning to witness the most dramatic scene.

There were two cars parked across the street. A skirmish had broken out. It wasn’t clear what was going on but what was audible were the threats ringing out for the entire neighbourhood to hear.

After what seemed like an eternity, the security guard at the office block ran across the street to intervene in the altercation. He too, it seemed, had frozen in shock at the violent scene unfolding in front of us.

A moment later, one of the cars reversed away at great speed, after the occupant of the second car had failed to drag the driver out of his.

The two remaining participants in this ugly scene then ran towards the office block with the security guard in tow trying to separate the two, which he managed to do.

I noticed that the two people embroiled in the fight were a man and woman. While it was difficult to ascertain exactly what was happening, the man’s booming voice and ominous threats were very clear.

Eventually the security guard managed to calm the situation and the man went back to his car – all the while screaming and shouting. The woman spoke softly, trying to calm him down.

It emerged that the man making the threats is the woman’s ex-boyfriend and the father of her children, but he is also married and has children with his wife. The man in the second car who fled in the heat of the fight is her current partner. The ex had been lying in wait for them as the boyfriend arrived to drop her off at work.

What a disturbing scene – and, worst of all, it struck me, the threat this man was making was probably not an empty one, and the woman’s life was really in danger.

We called the police and I urged the woman’s colleagues – who were among the onlookers and explained the parlous state of the affair – to report the matter to police, because it would not be likely to end well. It was very chilling.

I write about it now because it’s still so vivid in my mind and I wonder whether that woman is safe and alive.

Too many women will be killed by their partners in South Africa, as research by the Medical Research Council has found: “Intimate partner violence is now the leading cause of [the] death of women homicide victims with 56% of female homicides being committed by an intimate partner.

Despite the decline, South Africa’s intimate femicide rate in 2009 is more than double the rate in the United States. Furthermore our intimate femicide rate is most likely an underestimate because in over 20% of murders no perpetrator was identified.”

The conclusion the council has drawn is that policy tools aimed at reducing gender-based violence are not working.

Promoting and instilling gender equality and awareness programmes fail to have the desired effect. Promoting gender equity is enshrined in our Constitution and there is a whole raft of other legislative tools that speak to this.

One of the millennium development goals is to ensure gender equality. The goals expire this year and the world will enthusiastically take on a new development agenda, namely, the sustainable development goals, which will be adopted at the United Nations general assembly in September. The new 15-year poverty eradication and development goals will kick off in January 2016.

This time the world has set itself the task of 17 ambitious goals to make the world a better place. The fifth goal speaks specifically to achieving gender equality and ending all forms of discrimination against girls and women.

It also seeks to ensure the empowerment of all women and girls by 2030.

Some of the targets under this goal are worth noting:

  • To eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation;
  • To ensure women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life;
  • To ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights as agreed in accordance with the programme of action of the international conference on population and development;
  • To undertake reforms to give women equal rights to economic resources, as well as access to ownership and control over land and other forms of property, financial services, inheritance and natural resources, in accordance with national laws;
  • To enhance enabling technology, in particular information and communications technology, to promote women’s empowerment; and
  • To adopt and strengthen sound policies and enforceable legislation for the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls at all levels.

Goal No 4, which tackles education, also seeks to address this by ensuring that all girls and boys have access to equitable education.

This is the ideal policy mix, which we all dream of, but to what extent this will be implemented once the fanfare of the UN’s big pow wow in September is over is really the key.

The truth is, although these plans and efforts are laudable, it is in our own lives and the spaces in which we operate that we begin to see change in actions and perceptions.

So, in your own organisation and company, how deliberate are you being when it comes to ensuring equal opportunities for women and the advancement of their careers? It has to be a deliberate and concerted effort at all times for any of these lofty ideals to become a reality. The power is in your hands to make a difference.

Laws and policies are there to act as a guide – the implanting, however, is in our hands.

The security guard at our office block did not stand by and shrug his shoulders and say it wasn’t his business when a woman was being pummelled by her partner. We, as onlookers, called the police; we did not look away and say it’s not our business.

Nelson Mandela repeatedly urged us to work tirelessly to end the global oppression of women and girls: “For every woman and girl violently attacked, we reduce our humanity. For every woman forced into unprotected sex because men demand this, we destroy dignity and pride. Every woman who has to sell her life for sex we condemn to a lifetime in prison. For every moment we remain silent, we conspire against our women.”

This reflection should not be limited to Women’s Month; it must be something we embody and strive for at all times.

Nikiwe Bikitsha is a trustee of the Nelson Mandela Foundation