Shedding new light on the Sixteen Days of Activism                                                                                                                          by Colleen Lowe Morna

Shedding new light on the Sixteen Days of Activism by Colleen Lowe Morna

Date: November 25, 2016
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25 November: Déjà vu. It’s a familiar sensation at this time of year, as we wade through the gruesome statistics on gender violence in readiness for the Sixteen Days of Activism that runs from 25 November (International Day of No Violence Against Women) to 10 December (Human Rights Day).

It should not be so in the year we celebrate the twentieth anniversary of a Constitution that has gender equality as a corner stone and “bodily integrity” as a specific provision. Or in the year that US President-elect Donald Trump has so glorified misogyny that we have a chance to show that we are a cut above the rest.

Why are we faltering? Our problem is reactive and tired solutions. What is needed is a complete revolution in thinking – from response to prevention; victim to survivor; shelters to agency.

Open the day’s news. Nothing has changed, except perhaps that even our hallowed institutions of higher learning have woken up to the gender violence in their midst. Though over shadowed by the “#fees must fall campaign”, demonstrations against sexual assault have been persistent and pervasive at university campuses across the country.

Gender activist Nomboniso Gasa is busy probing what exactly happened at the University of Witwatersrand, where the latest incident erupted. We will wait to hear what she finds. But on the face of it, the story is all too familiar.

A young woman is sexually assaulted by a person she knows (contrary to the myth that most rape is by strangers, the majority are in fact perpetrated by someone known).

Authorities hush up what happened so that the young man can finish exams. The young woman almost commits suicide. University Vice Chancellor Adam Habib pleads with students not to go to the media or take to social media. What choice is there when the system is so sluggish?

A gender baseline study conducted by Gender Links in 2011 showed that over half the women of Gauteng (51.2%) have experienced some form of violence (emotional, economic, physical or sexual) in their lifetime and 78.3% of men in the province admit to perpetrating some form of violence against women. One in four women in the province has experienced sexual violence in their lifetime. An even greater proportion of men (37.4%) disclosed perpetrating sexual violence. Overall only one in 25 rape cases had been reported to the police.

The South African government model for addressing GBV is a cycle that starts with response, then support, then prevention – at the end of the chain.  Over the last twenty years, we have passed good laws. We have pioneered and piloted the Thutuzela One Stop Centres for integrated support to survivors of violence.

When these work together with Sexual Offences Courts, rates of conviction are higher than the usual 7%: there is some redress. News this week that former ANC Youth League Leader Patrick Wasani has been convicted of murder for beating his girlfriend Nosipho Mandleleni to death offers some hope that the criminal justice system is becoming more responsive. But we are still scratching the surface.

Perhaps one of the most poignant moments in 2016 was when four hitherto unknown young women stood up in front of reporters at the local government elections results centre while President Jacob Zuma explained the ANC’s waning support. Their placards read: “remember Kwezi” – the young woman who took up a case of rape against Zuma just before his election in 2009.

Although Zuma was acquitted of rape for want of sufficient evidence, the judge slammed the president-in-waiting for having unprotected sex with an HIV positive woman half his age; clearly shunning his advances. Kwezi, who went into exile because of all the public taunts she experienced, died this year. Zuma is still president.

Gender Links warned in an open letter to the President published by the Mail and Guardian in 2009 that a man who wiggles out of a rape case on a legal technicality is not fit to lead our new nation. It’s taken many other misdeeds, mainly charges of corruption, for a similar conclusion to start emerging as we lumber into 2017.

Simple fact: we’re captive to the same strong-man-rules psyche that gripped the USA during the November elections. We see no disconnect between a Constitution that guarantees gender equality and a leader who treats women like they are objects for his instant gratification.

It’s not surprising that a Southern African Gender Attitude Survey published by Gender Links this year found South Africa below par for a country with such progressive underpinnings. In South Africa only 61% women and 59% men agreed that women and men should be treated equally, compared to 76% women and 75% men across the region.

65% of South African women and 73% men agree or strongly agree that a woman should obey her husband. 50% of South African women and 58% men believe that a man should have a final say in all matters. 44% men and 37% women said that if a woman wears a short skirt she is asking to be raped.  Such attitudes are at the heart of the high levels of GBV in our country.

What must we do? First, we must put prevention at the beginning, not at the end of the GBV cycle. That means frontline and forthright leadership: a difficult task when the First Citizen in unrepentant about his behaviour, or when other leaders have to play cover up. Remember the fall out between two women ministers over the silent Kwezi demonstration, with one arguing that the young women should never have got past security?

But there are things we can do, in our homes, in our schools. How refreshing for example that the student leader speaking out about the Wits case happens to be a young man. Can we use this Sixteen Days to invite the five out of six men who are not abusers to stand up and lead the march for justice?

This year, as in other years, the government will brand the campaign as a fight against the abuse of women and children. These issues should not be conflated. Children are dependents, requiring our protection and care. Women are adults, voting citizens, who have a right to voice, choice and control in their daily lives. Shelters are a necessary short term solution. Turning women into refugees or displaced persons (remember Kwezi) is not a long term solution.

Three years ago, after years of gathering first- hand accounts showing that women stay in abusive relationships because they lack choices, Gender Links launched a pilot project in ten Southern African countries (including South Africa) to test the link between economic empowerment and sustainable solutions to GBV.

Working with 100 local councils, we devised a unique life and entrepreneurship training programme that includes reclaiming self-esteem, developing and implementing a business plan, links to finance, markets and infrastructure, peer support and mentorship.

The average income of the 1350 participants increased by R526 per month in the programme, which has been nominated for an M&G “Investing in the Future Award”. 41% of the women opened a bank account for the first time and 35% increased email usage. 85% of participants said they now experience less or much less GBV.

Susan Swart, a participant from Cape Agulhas left her abusive husband and started a catering business to support her two children. She has never looked back. As she put it: “I was encouraged to encourage others and was empowered to empower myself. I want to tell everyone that they can overcome, just like I have.”

This year, Gender Links is extending the Sixteen Days to include the Season of Giving which stretches from Thanksgiving on 24 November to Boxing Day of 26 December, including “Giving Tuesday” on 29 November.

We are launching the Sunrise Campaign, with the twin themes “empowering women, ending violence.” It costs just R15,000 for a survivor of violence to go through the year long programme that can turn despair to hope; abuse to agency. We are calling on those who want to support the Sixteen Day campaign to “give the gift of empowerment.”

Sunrise brings with it a new day, the promise of a fresh start. Sunshine brings life, light, power and strength. These are the promises of our 1996 Constitution. As we close 2016, let’s let the light shine!

(Written by Colleen Lowe Morna, CEO of Gender Links. Click here for more information on the Sunrise Campaign)