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30 November 2023 | Story Vusumzi Gqalane | Photo SUPPLIED
Vusumzi Gqalane
Vusumzi Gqalane is a Graduate Positioning Systems Success Coach in the Centre for Teaching and Learning at the UFS. He is currently a master’s candidate in Governance and Political Transformation and is writing in his personal capacity.

Opinion article by Vusumzi Gqalane, Graduate Positioning Systems Success Coach, Centre for Teaching and Learning, University of the Free State.

In 1999 – inspired by the tragic story of the Mirabal sisters' death in 1960 under the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic – the United Nations General Assembly designated 25 November as International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. The 16 days of Activism (25 November to 10 December) symbolise courage and resistance. The global commemoration of this crucial period represents a significant turning point in the continuing fight against gender-based violence (GBV), femicide, and the profoundly unacceptable challenge of child abuse. It allows communities, nations, and organisations to unite in a collective and unwavering commitment to eradicating these ubiquitous concerns. In doing so, we pave the way for a future where every individual, regardless of gender, can live free from the shadows of violence and abuse.

Unmasking the realities of the Palestinian and Israeli conflict on women and children

Despite all, violence against women remains a primary global concern many decades later. The ongoing Israeli occupation of Palestinian land caused by the conflict between the two nations has exacerbated this problem, disproportionately affecting women and children who face the tremendous burden of the region's continuing hostilities. In the years since the conflict began, there has been an enormous rise in violence and casualties in the occupied Palestinian territories and Israel. During this period, both Palestinian and Israeli women and children have been killed. For example, domestic violence, sexual harassment, early marriage, and femicide are common forms of violence against women in Palestine. Notably, in early October 2023, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict resulted in a severe escalation as war broke out between Israel and Hamas. This escalation has taken a heavy toll on women and children, who have been bearing the brunt of the violence in Israel and Gaza. Observing recent events, UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women and girls, Reem Alsalem, stated, "Since October 7, the assault on Palestinian women's dignity and rights has taken on new and terrifying dimensions, as thousands have become victims of war crimes, crimes against humanity and an unfolding genocide." Numerous efforts have been undertaken to date to provide aid, particularly to women and children. On the other hand, according to World Health Organisation Ministry of Health data, as of 3 November, 2 326 women and 3 760 children had been murdered in Gaza, accounting for 67% of all casualties, with thousands more injured. Every day, 420 children are murdered or injured; some of them are only a few months old.

Many attempts have been made to tackle gender-based violence in Gaza. However, the lack of global action for a world that stands against gender-based violence and advocates for human rights is striking. The silence from the international community is loud and concerning, given the pressing need to create a global atmosphere that actively promotes these values. The tragic reports of abuse emerging from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict underscore the immediate need to enhance multilateral collaboration. These efforts should address the specific challenges faced by women and children caught in the crossfire of this long-running conflict. In this context, overcoming geopolitical tensions becomes crucial, emphasising the critical importance of establishing a safe and secure environment for all individuals. While dealing with the ongoing tragedy, the global community must actively support and devote resources to groups run by women at the forefront of humanitarian efforts.

Furthermore, there is a need to foster women's meaningful participation in humanitarian and political activities. To effectively minimise the impact of the conflict on those vulnerable populations, a long-term approach prioritising the well-being and safety of women and children entangled in the complex dynamics of continuing hostilities is essential. If no ceasefire is achieved, the mentioned numbers will continue to rise.

As we reflect on the world’s commitment to human rights, serious concerns arise. Are we indeed a world that adheres to these values, or are our statements only empty promises? It is frightening to ponder whether we have become so accustomed to continual human rights violations that we go about our lives as if nothing is wrong. Could our collective conscience be desensitised to the suffering of others, and does our silence inadvertently make us complicit? These questions challenge us to confront the uncomfortable reality and consider whether our global community has become numb to the point where the flagrant violations of human rights are met with apathy rather than a persistent call for justice and change.

A rallying cry for change and equality in South Africa 

Coming back home – together with the world community, South Africa embarks on its annual 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence and Child Abuse; the nation stands at a critical juncture. The sad reality is that behind our rainbow nation's beautiful colours, a darker story of systemic injustices against women and children stands the test of time. Gender-based violence is a pervasive issue in South Africa, with one of the highest rates of domestic violence globally. Statistics SA reveals a persistent trend of rape and sexual assault cases in communities. Higher education institutions are significantly affected, weakening the sense of safety on campuses. 

Every year, the South African government declares its commitment to ending gender-based violence. On the other side, political parties and civil society organise rallies and events in the hope that the entire nation will hear the cries of women and children living in the difficult circumstances of gender-based violence. While discussing our country's supposed commitment to ending gender-based violence, one would have preferred to dig a little deeper – as there is more to the story than meets the eye – and to face the uncomfortable truths lying beneath the surface. However, it is promising that several laws and new bills have been enacted to fight these challenges, even though they may not be enough considering how deep-rooted gender-based violence is in our country. Additionally, spaces that ought to truly embrace the 16 days of activism are universities. These institutions bear the significant privilege and responsibility of shaping the perspectives of young minds concerning the treatment of women and individuals in society at large. As such, laws and policies contribute significantly to changing the narrative and fighting patriarchal and misogynistic habits of men. However, effective policies against gender-based violence should include not only legal measures, but also educational programmes. Gender-sensitive education at various levels can make a big difference in influencing cultural attitudes and actions. Core values can be instilled in children at a young age by incorporating lessons on consent, respect, and gender equality into school curricula. This multidimensional strategy, which combines legal change with education, has the potential to create a more inclusive and equal society.

Addressing gender-based violence requires collective efforts at individual level. It is crucial for everyone, including men, to actively support women's rights. We can't merely use rhetorical phrases to sound intellectual, sympathetic, or relevant to the discourse. However, we must roll up our sleeves and face our difficulties. It is not just about making promises; it is about examining what is broken and correcting it. Let us cut through the rhetoric and get to the root of the problem. By doing so, we are talking the talk and walking towards a safer and more equitable society. 

Gender-based violence and unjust discrimination against women should never be tolerated on any day. ‘A Cry for Change’ is more than an exposé; it is a rallying cry for justice, equality, and protecting the most vulnerable. ‘A Cry for Change’ takes on a profound significance as it raises the voices of women in South Africa, Gaza, Israel, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Mali, Ethiopia, Libya, Cameroon, South Sudan, and other countries grappling with the devastation of conflict and violence. Women and children are particularly vulnerable in these areas, bearing the brunt of the impact of prolonged fighting. The cry becomes a rallying cry that echoes the urgent need for transformative societal shifts. It acts as a catalyst for change, uniting people searching for a more equitable and humane world. The cry is deeply linked with the voices of those who are frequently silenced, underlining the importance of empathy and understanding. ‘A Cry for Change’ exemplifies an uncompromising dedication to making a difference, challenging society to confront its flaws, and actively engaging in the search for a more fair and just existence for everyone. Lastly, the cry serves as a heartbreaking reminder that, in the quest for a more just and equitable world, the plight of women in regions of war must not be forgotten, stressing the critical need for transformative action and global solidarity.

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