Today is International Human Rights Day, the last day of the 16 Days of Activism to end Gender-Based Violence and the day my mother was meant to face her attacker in court.
She never did because the police van from Pollsmoor Prison didn’t deliver him to the Wynberg magistrate’s court in time for the hearing.
Last week my mother was brutally assaulted by a man she knows. He showed up at her house with a knife, tried to slit her throat and stabbed her 14 times. “She is lucky to be alive,” the doctor in the emergency room said. “It could have been so much worse,” my sisters and I consoled ourselves.
This is what it’s come to in our society. We shrink away from the brutality our beloved mother endured and focus on our relief and gratitude that her life has been spared.
What will it take to end violence against women and children in our country? We know the depressing statistics. An average of 360 incidences of physical and sexual abuse take place in South Africa daily, according to People Opposing Women Abuse. A woman is physically abused every four minutes. These casual, random acts of violence have become so common that we’ve become inured to them.
My mother’s case is so unremarkable; it takes much more than the attack on her body, her psyche, to generate public interest. The crime must have unusual features or be extraordinarily gruesome to garner significant attention. What examples of the appalling atrocities committed against our women and children are sufficient to trigger public outrage?
Remember Anene Booysen, aged 17, gang-raped and disembowelled on a construction site in Bredasdorp? Left alive, her life seeping slowly away over unimaginable hours. More recently, 20-year-old Nicholas Ninow, the accused in the Dros rape case, followed a seven-year-old girl from the play area to the toilet where he raped her.
How can it be possible, we ask ourselves, that our daughters are not even safe going to the toilet in a family restaurant? (We’re also struck by the reminder that white men too can and do rape.) Or Courtney Pieters, only three years old, raped and murdered last year.
We are desperate for it to end, but what can we do? Women’s rights activists and organisations abound. We campaign, we march, we scream and shout at the tops of our voices, “Enough! This has to stop!” But day after day we continue to be assaulted.
We talk about the underlying issues of poverty, alcohol and drugs. We talk about how we need to change the values in our society to repair the rents in our moral fabric. We speak of the role of the family, of how mothers need to raise their sons to respect women, to refrain from taking their anger out on our bodies. But how does a mother teach her son these lessons when she herself is on the receiving end of violence and abuse?
I think about my mother’s case again. Her assailant had two other cases against him, one of which was domestic violence. Yet his wife recently dropped the domestic violence charge and attended Monday’s hearing to support him, with supporters beside her. How will she raise her son to understand, to truly believe, that his father’s brutality is to be rejected, rather than followed as an example?
We talk about education. It’s vital, but how long will it take for the lessons to be learned? I think of a more effective and efficient justice system. I witnessed on Monday how inefficient it is.
We tell our men, the woman under siege could be your daughter, wife, sister, mother. Most of the men who live among us, with us, would find these violent, brutal assaults abhorrent.
But, as the World Health Organisation reported last year, worldwide, one-third of women who have been in a relationship report that they have experienced some form of physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. What are these one in three women to do if they cannot be safe in their homes, with their partners?
One of the mantras I hear often in my daily work is: don’t just highlight problems, come up with solutions. I would love to offer solutions. I’d like to be able to say these are the actions we need to take to end the violence we live with every day.
I have no answers. I can only share the small changes I’m making in my life. To speak out against this epidemic whenever I can. To find a meaningful way to play a role in the collective efforts to fight back. To educate my daughters (I don’t have sons) to make sure they are aware of these issues, and can quickly understand and best respond to the situation should they ever be in danger. To enrol my eldest daughter in a self-defence class. None of this seems adequate.
I only hope that if more and more women stand up and say “enough”, find ways in which they can fight back, perhaps join the organisations that do battle against the everyday random acts of violence, perhaps we stand a chance to change things.
Women and children do not feel safe because they are not safe. The first half of the National Development Plan Vision 2030 outlines a beautiful idea: “In 2030, people living in South Africa feel safe at home, at school and at work, and they enjoy a community life free of fear. Women walk freely in the streets and children play safely outside.”
Let us do all we can and hope that our collective efforts will turn this dream into reality for our daughters.