/ 25 November 2016

​16 Days will be followed by positive action

Graphic: John McCann
Graphic: John McCann

Déjà vu. It’s a familiar sensation at this time of year, as we wade through the gruesome statistics on gender violence in readiness for the 16 Days of Activism that runs from November  25 to December 10.

It should not be so in the year we celebrate the 20th anniversary of a Constitution that has gender equality as a cornerstone and “bodily integrity” as a specific provision.

Why are we faltering? Our problem is reactive and tired solutions. What is needed is a revolution in thinking — from response to prevention; from victim to survivor; from shelters to agency.

Open the day’s news. Nothing has changed, except perhaps that even our hallowed institutions of higher learning have woken up to the gender violence in their midst. Though overshadowed by the #FeesMustFall campaign, demonstrations against sexual assault have been persistent at university campuses.

Gender activist Nomboniso Gasa was set to release her findings yesterday as to exactly what happened at the University of Witwatersrand, where the latest incident occurred.

But on the face of it, the story is too familiar. A woman is sexually assaulted by a person she knows (as is generally the case). Authorities allegedly hush up what happened so that the man can finish exams. The woman almost commits suicide. University vice-chancellor Adam Habib pleads with students not to go to the media or take to social media. What choice is there when the system is so sluggish?

A gender baseline study conducted by Gender Links in 2011 showed that more than half the women of Gauteng (51.2%) have experienced some form of violence (emotional, economic, physical or sexual) in their lifetime and 78.3% of men in the province admit to ­perpetrating some form of violence against women. One in four women has experienced sexual violence in her lifetime. An even greater proportion of men (37.4%) disclosed perpetrating ­sexual violence. Overall only one in 25 rape cases had been reported to the police.

The government model for addressing gender-based violence is a cycle that starts with response, then support, then prevention — at the end of the chain. Over the past 20 years, we have passed good laws. We have pioneered and piloted the Thutuzela One Stop Centres for integrated support to survivors of violence.

When these work together with sexual offences courts, rates of conviction are higher than the usual 7% — there is some redress.

News this week that former ANC Youth League leader Patrick Wasani has been convicted of murder for beating his girlfriend Nosipho Mandleleni to death offers some hope that the criminal justice system is becoming more responsive. But we are still scratching the surface.

Perhaps one of the most poignant moments in 2016 was when four hitherto unknown young women stood up in front of reporters at the local government elections results centre while President Jacob Zuma explained the ANC’s waning support. Their placards read “Remember Kwezi” (sic) — the young woman who laid a charge of rape against Zuma just before his election in 2009.

Although he was acquitted for want of sufficient evidence, the judge harshly criticised the president-in-waiting for having unprotected sex with an HIV-positive woman half his age, who was clearly shunning his advances.

Khwezi, who went into exile because of the public taunts she experienced, died this year. Zuma is still president.

Gender Links warned in an open letter to the president, published by the Mail & Guardian in 2009, that a man who wriggles out of a rape case on a legal technicality is not fit to lead our new nation. It has taken many other misdeeds, mainly charges of corruption, for a similar conclusion to start emerging as we lumber into 2017.

Simple fact: we’re captive to the same strong-man-rules psyche that gripped the United States during the November elections. We see no disconnect between a Constitution that guarantees gender equality and a leader who treats women as if they are objects for his instant gratification.

It’s not surprising that a Southern African Gender Attitude Survey published by Gender Links this year found South Africa below par for a country with such progressive underpinnings: only 61% women and 59% men agreed that women and men should be treated equally, compared with 76% women and 75% men in the region.

In South Africa, 65% of women and 73% of men agree or strongly agree that a woman should obey her husband; 50% of women and 58% of men believe that a man should have the final say in all matters; and 44% of men and 37% of women said that if a woman wears a short skirt she is asking to be raped.

What must we do?
First, we must put prevention at the beginning, not at the end, of the gender-based violence cycle. That means frontline and forthright leadership — a difficult task when the First Citizen in unrepentant about his behaviour, or when other leaders have to play cover-up. Remember the falling-out between two women Cabinet ministers over the silent Khwezi demonstration, with one arguing that the four should never have got past security?

But there are things we can do, in our homes, in our schools. How refreshing, for example, that the student leader speaking out about the Wits case happens to be a young man. Can we use this 16 Days of Activism to invite the five out of six men who are not abusers to stand up and lead the march for justice?

This year, as in other years, the government will brand the campaign as a fight against the abuse of women and children.

These issues should not be conflated. Children are dependents, requiring our protection and care. Women are adults, voting citizens, who have a right to voice, choice and control. Shelters are a necessary short-term solution. Turning women into refugees or displaced persons is not a long-term solution.

Three years ago, after years of gathering first-hand accounts showing that women stay in abusive relationships because they lack choices, Gender Links launched a pilot project in 10 Southern African countries to test the link between economic empowerment and sustainable solutions to gender-based violence.

Working with 100 local councils, we devised a unique life and entrepreneurship training programme, which includes reclaiming self-esteem, developing and implementing a business plan, links to finance, markets and infrastructure, peer support and mentorship.

The average income of the 1 350 participants increased by R526 a month in the programme, which has been nominated for an M&G Investing in the Future Award. In the programme, 41% of the women opened a bank account for the first time and 35% increased email usage, and 85% said they now experience less or much less gender-based violence.

Susan Swart, a participant from Cape Agulhas, left her abusive husband and started a catering business to support her two children. She has never looked back. As she put it: “I was encouraged to encourage others and was empowered to empower myself. I want to tell everyone that they can overcome, just like I have.”

This year, Gender Links is extending the 16 Days of Activism to include the Season of Giving, which stretches from November 24 to December 26, including “Giving Tuesday” on November 29.

We are launching the Sunrise Campaign, with the twin themes of “empowering women, ending violence”. It costs just R15 000 for a survivor of violence to go through the year-long programme that can turn despair into hope, abuse into agency.

Sunrise brings with it a new day, the promise of a fresh start. Sunshine brings life, light, power and strength. These are the promises of our 1996 Constitution. As we close 2016, let’s let the light shine.

Colleen Lowe Morna is the chief executive of Gender Links. For more information on the Sunrise Campaign go to their website