/ 26 May 2017

State must join citizens to fight femicide

(John McCann)
(John McCann)

On Sunday May 28, South Africa’s women will dress in black and wear red lipstick in honour of the women who have been brutally murdered in the name of love.

Under the hashtag #GodCreated­Woman, they are part of a new “All Black and Red Lipstick Movement” that has arisen organically in response to the rash of intimate femicides that has grabbed our headlines over the past fortnight.

The widely publicised case of Karabo Mokoena, who went missing on April 28 and whose charred body was found in a dustbin a fortnight later, is a reminder that our failing state is faltering on yet another gold standard of our Constitution — the right to life and to bodily integrity.

Mokoena had opened a case of domestic violence at a local police station before falling victim to this heinous crime.

The anger unleashed by women under the #MenAreTrash hashtag is a reaction to a woman being murdered by her intimate partner every eight hours — five times the global average.

Bold action is required but will it be forthcoming? Why, despite the widespread publicity, the facts and figures and all the programmes, is the state still failing women, more than two decades into our new democracy?

Intimate femicide, the most extreme form of gender-based violence, is a litmus test of how a nation deals with gender violence. Gender-based violence baseline studies conducted by Gender Links in four provinces show that the largest proportion of violence doesn’t even have a category in police statistics — verbal, emotional and psychological abuse. Other forms of violence such as physical and sexual abuse go woefully under-reported because of the social pressure and stigma attached to these abuses.

On the other hand, all deaths are reported, meaning femicide is always incorporated in police statistics. Despite much lobbying, police statistics do not disaggregate femicide from other forms of female homicide.

Femicide is defined as “the intentional killing of females (women or girls) because they are females”. Intimate femicide is the most extreme consequence of intimate partner violence. Because police compile dockets of all murder cases, it would be easy enough to add a tick box “intimate femicide” but this does not happen, leaving it to academic researchers and nongovernmental organisations to comb through these dockets to get the statistics.

Still, because the murderers are intimate partners, they are usually known, which means legally half the battle should have been won. Instead, research carried out by the Medical Research Council shows that less than 38% of femicides lead to convictions.

The sentence for murder is life imprisonment. But, as illustrated in the case of former ANC Youth League provincial leader Patrick Wisani, who received a sentence of 20 years, the maximum penalty is seldom meted out in such cases. Wisani beat his 24-year-old partner to death in 2015.

The anger unleashed by these recent cases is a response to state failure to give women the security of person to which the Constitution entitles them. If the state cannot deal with these cases of femicide, how much more the incessant verbal and psychological abuse that women endure? What has come of the Sixteen Days of Activism campaigns now etched in the nation’s diary and even extended in many quarters into 365-day campaigns? Why is there still no change?

A comparison with the way in which we have started to reverse the scourge of HIV is useful. South Africa has the unenviable distinction of having one of the highest proportion of people living with HIV anywhere in the world, but also now one of the most visionary and well-funded programmes to prevent new infections and treat those infected.

Two factors proved crucial: political leadership and an integrated programme, bringing together all sectors of society under the South African National Aids Council.

Whatever his shortcomings, President Jacob Zuma ended the Thabo Mbeki era of Aids denialism and paved the way for a more proactive response. The same cannot be said of gender-based violence.

Speaking on e.tv, author and activist Mmatshilo Motsei reminded us that countries have personalities, and they often take on the personality of their leader. Violence and sexism are deeply rooted in our past. We have a president acquitted of rape, but found wanting in his behaviour towards women. Zuma is also mired in charges of corruption and faced with the #ZumaMustFall campaign. Fighting gender-based violence is not high on his agenda.

He and the ruling ANC failed to pronounce themselves unequivocally in the Wisani case. The ANC Women’s League, visible in the Oscar Pistorius trial, was conspicuous by its absence in this case. The odd woman MEC has gone to a funeral and, after a period of being missing in action, Minister of Women Susan Shabangu has offered vague statements about “collective action”.

A recommendation in December by the United Nation’s special rapporteur on the causes of violence against women in South Africa, Dubravka Åimonovic, that the government should publish a femicide watch report every November 25 (International Day of No Violence Against Women) has not been acted on. There has been no overarching presidential statement on how femicide and gender-based violence is to be dealt with in a comprehensive and systemic way.

The National Prosecuting Authority has a well-thought-through model on gender-based violence that involves response, support and prevention. It is recognised that, although the criminal justice system is in the frontline of addressing gender-based violence, the causes are rooted in a deeply patriarchal and sexist society.

Last week, the Cape Town-based Rape Survivors’ Justice Campaign went to Parliament to demand that sexual offences be heard exclusively by sexual offences courts, which achieve 10 times the conviction rates of ordinary courts, but cases going to those courts are few and far between.

The solutions have to go beyond courts and laws. They involve schools, the health system and all the productive sectors, as the economic empowerment of women is a crucial long-term solution. The private sector and workplaces have a role to play, because gender-based violence affects them and is sometimes played out in these spaces. Cultural and religious institutions, which are often part of the cover-up, need to come to the party.

In 2007, the government adopted a multi-stakeholder National Action Plan to End Gender Violence in 2007 and agreed to set up a gender-based violence council. Representatives from a broad range of organisations were invited to be members. Strangely, Shabangu disbanded the council and has put no alternative structure in place since then.

Two years ago, Sonke Gender Justice, joined by several civil society organisations, led a campaign for a national gender-based violence strategy. The call fell on deaf ears.

Civil society organisations also have introspecting to do. Our lack of co-ordination, and contestation of those who seek to co-ordinate, continually gives the government the excuse that it does not know who to work with on these matters.

Religious leaders, who have a powerful sway on the national psyche, have also been quiet on the gruesome occurrences of the past few weeks.

Although the South African Council of Churches has come out boldly on state capture in its “South Africa we pray for” campaign, its deafening silence on women’s rights is inexplicable.

What is new now is social media and its ability to mobilise movements overnight — witness the All Black and Red Lipstick Movement and the #NotInMyName march by men last Saturday in answer to the #MenAreTrash outrage. Citizen action is filling the vacuum left by the state and organised civil society.

The power of citizen action is huge. The fact that the state doggedly pursued a stiffer sentence for Pistorius, for example, is surely linked to the outpouring of public rage for his lenient sentencing in the murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp.

Citizen action and state response need to work together in systemic ways to deliver lasting change. Bold leadership, structures and resources must work hand in hand with demands for accountability if we are to prevent more cases of men getting away with murder.

Colleen Lowe Morna is the chief executive of Gender Links