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01 November 2022 | Story Dr Claire Stephanie Westman | Photo Robyn Davie
Dr Claire Westman
Dr Claire Stephanie Westman, Postdoctoral Researcher at the Free State Centre for Human Rights

Opinion article by Dr Claire Stephanie Westman, Postdoctoral Researcher at the Free State Centre for Human Rights, University of the Free State.
The upcoming 16 Days of Activism for No Violence against Women and Children is an annual international campaign, running from 25 November until 10 December, which aims to reinforce the call for the prevention and elimination of violence against women and girls (VAWG). The South African Government explains that “the 16 Days Campaign forms the centre point of government’s comprehensive 365 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children”, and forms part of a so-called emergency response to the scourge of gender-based violence in South Africa.

However, despite these calls to end gender-based and sexual violence, it is clear that violence against women and girls continues unabated, not only in South Africa, but worldwide. Focusing on the South African context, between October and December of 2021, 11 315 people, primarily women and girls, were raped. This amounts to more than 11 000 reported cases of rape within a period of only three months (SAPS). However, according to the Rape Survivor’s Justice Campaign, approximately only 7,7% of sexual offences are reported, thus putting the actual number of sexual offence cases at an estimated 645 580 per year. In addition, there are on average 2 763 murders of women in South Africa a year, which is approximately 7 women per day. This places South Africa in the top five countries in the world regarding femicide. 

Understanding gender-based violence

While such violence may seem to be simply one manifestation of other ‘forms’ of violence, it is necessary to understand that gender-based violence, particularly sexual violence, is used as a means of social control. It is used to control the movement and behaviour of women, as well as to uphold patriarchal and heteronormative norms and ideologies. This social control is especially ‘effective’ in a country like South Africa, where GBV and sexual violence occur at alarming rates and where such violence is often enacted very publicly and graphically (as seen particularly in cases of lesbo-phobic rape). The extremely violent and public nature of many rapes serves to not only violate and harm the individual victims/survivors of rape, but also serves to remind all women that they are vulnerable to such violence. Rape, as such, becomes a very effective means through which to ‘keep women in check’ and often leads to them changing their behaviour or movements so as to avoid such violence. As Pumla Gqola explains, the constant threat of violence reminds women that “they are not safe and that their bodies are not entirely theirs”. As such, it can be understood that GBV and sexual violence are, in a way, systematically and strategically used to uphold dominant forms of power and perpetuate ideologies related to sex and gender. 

Of course, this is not a problem isolated to the South African context. According to the United Nations, “VAWG remains the most widespread and pervasive human rights violation, worldwide affecting more than an estimated one in three women, a figure that has remained largely unchanged over the past decade. The most recent global estimates showed that, on average, a woman or girl is killed by someone in her own family every 11 minutes.”

What is clear, is that we cannot rely on ineffective and often-patriarchal justice systems in order to address GBV or to protect women and girls from the scourge. Consequently, the theme for this year’s 16 Days of Activism campaign is ‘UNITE! Activism to end violence against women and girls.’ Related to this theme is the United Nations Secretary-General’s UNiTE by 2030 to End Violence against Women campaign (UNiTE campaign). This multi-year campaign ‘calls for global actions to increase awareness, galvanise advocacy efforts, and share knowledge and innovations.’ While legal frameworks, effective justice systems, and serious government responses to VAWG are incredibly necessary, it is also vital that the ideologies that create the conditions in which VAWG flourishes and is often even condoned, must be addressed. For this, awareness, education, accountability, and activism are necessary.

Support and advocacy

In South Africa, there are many organisations, including POWA, Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust, and the TEARS Foundation (among many others) that work tirelessly to provide support and advocacy to survivors of sexual and gender-based violence. For example, Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust reports that between March 2021 and March 2022, “9 650 survivors and their supporters received direct services from Rape Crisis. This support was provided across our helplines, in-person counselling, court support, social work sessions, community workshops and the three Thuthuzela Care Centres in which we work.” Such support and advocacy work are not only vital in helping survivors access post-violence medical and mental health support, but also in filing police reports, accessing courts, and receiving support throughout legal proceedings. Furthermore, such organisations provide education that helps to address toxic gender ideologies and debunk myths around rape and sexual violence.

However, we should not solely rely on organisations to do this work. We all need to be aware of our own actions and words and the ways in which they might contribute to a culture in which VAWG is acceptable; call out the behaviour and actions of others; assist those organisations providing support and advocacy in whatever way we can; and hold the government accountable for developing and implementing plans and procedures for addressing violence against women and girls in South Africa. 

Perhaps, however, it is also time that we take to the streets – as we are seeing in Iran – to demand better conditions for women, girls, and other marginalised communities in South Africa. We need to UNITE to create a country in which women and girls have a future that is free from the ever-present threat of violence. We need to demand an effective justice system that holds (primarily) men accountable for their actions. We need to make it clear that we will no longer allow the complacency and lack of urgency shown by the government in addressing VAWG. We need to UNITE in demanding a country that is safe for women and girls!

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