The rape and murder of 19-year-old Uyinene Mrwetyana in August, left us battling to make sense of our violent world. She went to collect a parcel at the post office and never made it out alive. She was not drunk. She was wearing brown corduroy pants and a white T-shirt. She was not walking home late at night. There was nothing that could be used to “victim shame” her.
Many commentators on social media suggested what women could do to avoid being raped — take self-defence classes, carry a pepper spray, tell friends when they leave a venue.
A tweet, posted on the government site read: “Violence and abuse against women have no place in our society. Govt is calling on women to speak out, and not allow themselves to become victims by keeping quiet. Women who speak out are able to act, effect change and help others.”
It received widespread backlash on social media. Black Twitter acted first to offer a correction to the tweet, much like a schoolteacher would take a red pen to a student’s paper: “Violence and abuse by men have no place in our society. Govt is calling on men to speak out, and not allow themselves to create victims. Men who speak out are able to act, effect change and help others.”
Some years ago there was a film called What Women Want, a romantic comedy in which the main character is knocked unconscious and when he wakes up he can hear women’s thoughts. But this will remain in Hollywood.
But if men listened closely to the outpouring of women’s grief, fear and frustration after yet another act of violence, they would hear not only what we want, but also what we urgently need.
Women do not have the power to stop rape. We cannot simply break our silence or act in certain ways to effect change. What we need is for men to speak out boldly in public and private spaces.
We need all men, from all walks of life, to call out their male friends, family and colleagues whenever they say or do anything that condones or excuses rape.
When men do speak out against rape, they should counter the narrative that they are doing so because women are their mothers, wives, sisters or friends. We want men to speak out because they believe women are people who have a value in society equal to that of themselves.
Fathers must teach their sons what consent means and that it is non-negotiable in all their interactions with the girls and women in their lives.
This week marked the start of the annual 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence campaign, which runs from November 25, also known as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, until International Human Rights Day on December 10.
This year, the United Nations secretary general’s UNiTE campaign against gender-based violence has the theme, “Generation Equality: Stand Against Rape”.
But we need 365 days of sustained action to eliminate gender-based violence.
Gender-based violence is directed at an individual based on their biological sex or gender identity. It includes physical, sexual, verbal, emotional, financial and psychological violence or abuse, in public or private.
Rape is rooted in the notion that women are inferior to men and motivated by the rapist’s violent need for power and control.
Women who are raped are more likely to contract HIV, less able to exercise their sexual and reproductive health rights and more likely to be exposed to other forms of gender-based violence throughout their lifetime than those who are not.
Exact numbers of rape and sexual assaults are difficult to estimate because of a culture of impunity for perpetrators, stigma attached to survivors and their resulting silence.
UNAids’s latest global report shows that about 30% of women in South Africa, Uganda and Tanzania have experienced violence at the hands of an intimate partner in the last 12 months, according to surveys.
We need to make structural changes to achieve meaningful and sustainable gender equality, access to justice and human dignity. These will take some time and we will continue to advocate for changes in laws and policies in Eastern and Southern Africa to help us reach our goal.
What we can do in the next 365 days, though, is write a scene in the script of our own Hollywood romcom, where this time next year we are living in a world a less violent than it is now.
Catherine Sozi is the director of the UNAids regional support team for Eastern and Southern Africa