A South African Solution

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The critical levels of gender-based violence in South Africa have long been evident, and every time another brutal crime against a woman is reported, it seems to be met with calls for change — but not much action. For many, this cycle increases a pervasive feeling of powerlessness to do anything about the situation at an individual, organisational or even governmental level, but some are stepping up to the challenge. 

Vodacom’s recently launched “Be the light” campaign is calling on men to take the lead in addressing gender-based violence, from taking accountability for their own actions to having honest conversations with others and supporting the most vulnerable. The discourse around gender-based violence and femicide has historically defined gender-based violence as a “women’s issue”, neglecting the role of men, whether they are involved directly or by simply turning a blind eye to injustice. 

Takalani Netshitenzhe, Chief Officer: Corporate Affairs at Vodacom says: “Domestic violence is one of the most underreported crimes, because it happens in a ‘safe’ environment, among people who are intimate with each other. And so, the victims feel shame — especially if they are dependent on the perpetrator, and there are children who are dependent on the perpetrator.” 

Takalani Netshitenzhe, Chief Officer: Corporate Affairs at Vodacom. (Photo: Courtesy of Vodacom)

Vodacom’s Be the light campaign enlists men who have themselves been perpetrators of gender-based violence, enabling them to lend their voices to conversations among men in which wrongs are acknowledged and decisive commitments are made to actively being a part of the solution to violence against women. Netshitenzhe notes that South Africa’s staggering levels of gender-based violence call for a particularly incisive solution. “When we look at GBV,” she explains, “we don’t just look at the response. The criminal justice system doesn’t effectively look at the full cycle: prevention, response, and victim support. Holding these dialogues and having these marches that are led by men plays a part in prevention.”

The active participation of men in the fight to eradicate violence against women is a necessity, considering the established positions of power many men hold, and the futility women feel in the face of structural gender inequality. Men need to take responsibility for themselves and each other, leading the charge in eradicating a reputation that is well entrenched — after all, every man is a role model to someone around them, whether they consider it or not. It’s more important than ever for men to ensure that their everyday actions bear emulation. This complex, pervasive problem necessitates a considered and multi-layered solution, so the campaign is building on Vodacom’s existing initiatives to address gender-based violence survivors: data from an existing, well-used helpline is being used to better understand the problem, while Be the light aims to shift the attitudes and actions of men.

In 2014, Vodacom worked with the Department of Social Development to launch the Gender-Based Violence Command Centre, managed by trained, government-employed social workers. Between the beginning of January and June 30 2020, the command centre has received 48 583 calls, of which 2 079 were GBV-related. Compare that to 87 092 for the full year of 2019, of which 1 846 were GBV-related, and you have some idea of the escalating extent of the problem. 

The marked rise in reports of gender-based violence during the lockdown period is attributed in part to the well-documented phenomenon of socioeconomic frustration and uncertainty finding expression in domestic violence. The implications for a country in which unemployment is catastrophically high, and expected to grow in a particularly volatile economy, are chilling. Some of the power of the campaign lies in its ability to gather and analyse this data, to provide a more immediate picture of the gender-based violence pandemic in the country, but one that is likely also more accurate than that presented by formal criminal statistics. 

Gender-based violence is notoriously underreported for reasons of shame, fear and doubt in the efficacy of laying charges against an abuser, but during the lockdown this gap between police statistics and reality will likely continue to widen due to the legal and logistical constraints and getting to a police station. In addition, geolocation abilities and other features of the dashboard allow for further analysis of where, when and perhaps even why levels of gender-based violence spike. 

“The social workers also receive calls from the perpetrators, who just want to ‘let out’,” reports Netshitenzhe. “We provide counselling from the command centre. They want somebody to listen, and to provide help.”

To reach men whose emotional response to their circumstances is finding expression in violence, and bring them to the point of wanting to change, Vodacom’s Be the light aims to implore men to interrogate their own attitudes. Netshitenzhe speaks of the necessity of reaching young boys with positive messages about masculinity: “Men are socialised to be aggressive and to be macho from a tender age. The boy child needs to be socialised to treat the girl child as an equal, and a way in which you can do that is if you have men at the forefront of this campaign. We want men to serve as an inspiration.” 

Internationally and closer to home, examples exist of successful interventions in which men’s roles are foregrounded. The United Nations Population Fund has experimented with methods for changing beliefs that can result in violence against women, such as interactive training with Turkish police officers that produced measurable results: more victims coming forward for assistance, a shift in officers’ understanding of domestic violence, increased collaboration between police and female-focused non-profits, new methodologies in domestic violence investigations and even officers opting to seek out further training and information about the issue. 

The Children’s Dignity Forum, a non-profit in Tanzania, incorporates men into the fight for gender equality through MenEngage: by education and engagement, they enable men to take the lead in challenging practices such as child marriage and genital mutilation. The White Ribbon Campaign claims to be the world’s largest movement of men and boys working to end violence and promote gender equity, and is supported locally by the Joe Slovo Foundation. The White Ribbon Workplace Accreditation Programme positions men as ambassadors for change; there’s more transparency and interaction with Human Resources and a notable shift in perception from male employees who confessed to not having understood the problem’s extent. 

Vodacom’s Be the light campaign is gathering momentum acorss the country. (Photo: Courtesy of Vodacom)

Netshitenzhe has seen first-hand that men can come to reassess their role in perpetrating violence against women in their everyday lives. “It was so heartening,” she says of a recent forum event. “After the formal panel discussion, men were actually raising their hands and talking about their own experiences, being socialised from a young age to be aggressive to girls. The more you talk about gender-based violence, and social stereotypes, the more you reach out to people. They realise that how they treated their female classmates was improper, and if they could be given an opportunity they would go back and apologise.” 

Vodacom’s interventions in gender-based violence are now responding to hopeful calls from the previous workshops’ participants for more, extended discussions. A half-day imbizo will serve as the next forum for further conversations.  — Cayleigh Bright and Scott Dodds

The Gender-Based Violence Command Centre centre can be reached as follows:
• Phone 0800 428 428 or via USSD on *120*7867#
• The Skype line ‘HelpMeGBV’ is for members of the deaf community, and
• The SMS-based line is on 31531.

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