/ 8 October 2022

Tackling gender-based violence and femicide requires collective effort

Gender Based Violence Protesters March Outside Parliament In Cape Town In South Africa
Despite strong legislation, South Africa is failing to address its unacceptable rates of woman abuse. (Nardus Engelbrecht/Gallo Images via Getty Images)

The power of behaviour change to address and prevent gender-based violence and femicide (GBVF) is undeniable. Still, it requires full participation from individuals and communities that are informed and engaged and are empowered enough to demand change and improve their lives. How can we shift norms and change violent behaviour without enabling and amplifying the voices of those who bear the brunt of GBVF?

This can be done through strengthening people’s agency and assuring access to life-saving information and support. However, social behavioural change and nation-building programmes must be informed by evidence and remain innovative and adaptable in our ever-changing world. Communities need to be at the centre of interventions for social and behavioural change. 

The reported achievements of the first year of the National Strategic Plan on Gender-Based Violence and Femicide (NSP-GBVF) implementations beg the question of how the interventions were selected and how their success was measured. 

The second pillar of the national plan seeks to address behavioural and structural issues that affect vulnerable groups like children and women. A good starting point is to dismantle patriarchy by recognising that the rights of children, women and LGBTQI+ persons are human rights. 

Patriarchy is a manifestation of the intersectionality of power and social disconnectedness. There continues to be an interplay between poverty, patriarchy, racism and hetero-normativity, resulting in children, women and LGBTQI+ persons living in poverty and being most at risk of violence. The links between poverty, inequality and higher risks of exposure to GBV are undeniable. There is a circular effect where women who have been victims of GBV are generally excluded from economic activity. 

Unless we make gender-based violence and discrimination unacceptable by transforming the cultural norms that perpetuate these practices, we will not be able to prevent GBVF. According to a World Health Organisation report on preventing violence against women and girls, making environments safe is a priority. Environments include safe schools and public spaces such as public transport. 

Social institutions such as family, school, religion and media play a critical role in the socialisation of gender, thus their transformation is key to the prevention of GBV and femicide. Each institution’s role in reinforcing harmful norms must be interrogated and addressed through this policy. Many levels of action are needed to truly create change. 

South Africa requires a community mobilisation model that facilitates cohesion. Individuals need to be challenged to take action in their personal lives and extend those actions to their communities to build a foundation for community members to fulfil their human rights and live free from violence. 

We have seen the impact of media, and in particular drama, in influencing social norms, but it will take more than key messages and social media campaigns to end GBVF. Emerging evidence on the effectiveness of interventions to tackle a wide range of GBVF suggests that interventions that address gender norms, behaviours and inequalities, and that challenge dominant notions of gender are more effective at reducing GBVF than those that do not.

Our efforts towards preventing GBVF need to be grounded in feminist principles that recognise patriarchy as a system of power. All feminisms share a common basis – the idea that there are systems of power in our society that systematically oppress women.  Feminisms are also movements to change; as such it is an analytical tool linked to action. 

Intersectionality recognises that many crucial factors shape identity and women’s lived experiences, including but not limited to age, gender, race, class, marital status, customs and culture. Intersectionality recognises that it is possible to experience simultaneous and multiple forms of oppression. 

In setting the steps and goals for prevention, the NSP-GBVF makes a few assumptions, including the willingness and readiness to confront and transform patriarchal norms that feed GBV. 

Marginalised communities must benefit more

The South African government acknowledges that the successful democratisation process in South Africa has engendered high expectations for its transformation. Still, social transformation has proven difficult in both the political and the economic realm, especially in changing the lives of women, children and LGBTQI+ persons. 

The report also acknowledges that one of the fundamental challenges in South Africa is patriarchal and gender stereotyped thinking, which manifests in misogyny and seemingly harmless and socially acceptable forms of oppression that provide a slippery slope to GBV and femicide. It is no surprise that children and women are subjected to high levels of rape, sexual offences, femicide, domestic violence and intimate partner violence. Patriarchal norms and toxic masculinity are also behind the inhumane and violent crimes that the LGBTIQ+ community is subjected to due to their sexual orientation.

The second pillar of the NSP-GBVF focuses on preventing GBVF and rebuilding social cohesion. The World Economic Forum notes that any society’s resilience depends on high levels of social cohesion. The vulnerability of marginalised communities is increasing as economic and social issues worsen. There is enough evidence that striving for social cohesion, if done right, results in an enabling environment where inequalities are diminished and all people share a common humanity, respect for human rights and a fair allocation of resources.

When it comes to GBV prevention, social cohesion often comes at the cost of the group of people who are most impacted. Those most at risk of GBV are at the forefront of ensuring it doesn’t occur or that there are systems in place that enable justice for survivors and victims. This very national plan resulted from the collective call to action by the most affected people — women, children and LGBTQI+ communities. 

This “gender paradox of social cohesion” illustrates that while these groups contribute the most to social cohesion, particularly in terms of care and forms of relationships, they are “excluded from social cohesion in terms of equal opportunities, citizenship and participation”. 

There is progress, but more can be done

There have been efforts toward prevention since the strategic plan was finalised and various stakeholders have taken part in this. Civil society organisations are at the coalface of this work as they are integrally embedded in communities. Multi-pronged, sustained and consistent school interventions, such as clubs, create a generation of young people who are socialised to condemn GBVF and to value all people. 

It’s encouraging to see the implementation of Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE), a programme that promotes an understanding of concepts, values and attitudes around sexuality and sexual behaviour, as well as leading a safe and healthy lifestyle. CSE creates an environment for ongoing learning with teacher and peer support and helps mobilise children and build agency to tackle issues affecting them. While we commend the department of basic education for this, the pushback from various stakeholders that harbour conservative views is concerning. 

Student governing bodies and teachers are often gatekeepers of this information. The education department’s scripted lesson plans are a guide for teachers, but schools are not obliged to use them, and schools can choose how they teach sexuality education. Thankfully, the Basic Education Laws Amendment (BELA) Bill is one way that these powers can be limited, but the continued pushback tells us that we have not successfully won over many parents and teachers. 

Prevention is not possible without equipping teachers, parents and caregivers with the necessary tools and information to ensure they have positive attitudes and diverse perceptions about gender and sexuality. According to the report on the first year of the NSP-GBVF implementation, these interventions have already taken place. However, we are yet to see whether they successfully shifted norms or even reduced gender inequality, let alone GBV. 

Additionally, schools can develop safety plans and policies where school governing bodies and teachers are trained to develop and implement policies and practices to prevent sexual violence, identify vulnerable children and link them to appropriate services.

An integrated approach places a bigger emphasis on proven interventions on the ground that work, such as boys’ mentoring programmes that are aimed at deconstructing the socialisation of boys who associate the assertion of their masculinity with violence. But these programmes need to also interrogate their approaches through a feminist lens. Do these programmes truly reimagine masculinity? How do we ensure that it’s not another form of creating toxic masculinity through narratives like “real men don’t rape”? 

We’re in this together

All South Africans have a duty to remove violence and rape from the status quo. In order to do this, we require the collective will to end rape and femicide, as well as the structural and institutional support needed, such as the full implementation of the NSP-GBVF. While we can all contribute to the changing of the statistics, the political will of those in power is integral to the fulfilment of policies, laws and budgets that enable an end to GBVF.

Behaviour change is not linear, nor is it easy. Ending GBVF requires a shift in cultural norms and attitudes toward gender. We must use culture to change the culture. We must reach people where they are to inspire action, replacing harmful norms with human rights values through the power of pop culture, media, arts and tech, combined with on-the-ground engagement. 

Our patriarchal society deepens the inequalities that result in GBV and femicide. Even when GBV survivors have the will to report the crimes perpetrated against them, justice is not guaranteed. Building a socially cohesive society and addressing patriarchal norms can not only contribute to the prevention of GBV and femicide but also to seeking justice and providing the healing and other support mechanisms GBV survivors require.

As the second presidential GBVF summit approaches, we need to see more than just activities and engagements. We must discuss their successes, challenges and impact. This will not happen unless civil society and government make efforts to listen to the people on the ground. 

Phinah Kodisang is the chief executive and an executive member of the board of directors of the Soul City Institute NPC.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.