Speaking out against gun violence

Date: December 9, 2010
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Sharing her story at the recent launch of the book “Speaking out can set you free: the South African experience,” Mmabatho Moyo recalled the day a chance turn of her head saved her life – the bullet from her husband’s gun lodged close to her scalp, rather than going straight into her brain. Waking four months later in a hospital, she stayed there another nine months. The physical recovery included speech therapy and physiotherapy; the psychological trauma meant seven more months at a mental institution.

Mmabatho Moyo is not her real name, but the pen name she used when writing her story in 2008 during Gender Links “I” Stories project, an annual initiative in which survivors of gender violence write and publish personal narratives. With great confidence, Moyo introduced herself, with her real name, and once again told her story to more than 100 women and men gathered to launch the retrospective publication. She recalled how after years of abuse her husband arrived home late one night and demanded tea. Standing on a chair to reach the cup, she says, “I don’t know what made me turn at exactly that moment, but it’s lucky that I did.”

Like many similar cases, her husband used the gun as a threat prior to the actual shooting. Perhaps unlike other stories, she first met and was impregnated by him when he raped her at gunpoint when she was just 17-years-old. The new book, based on more than 170 personal accounts written by survivors of gender violence published in nine books and hundreds of media articles, illustrates a need for much more speaking out on gender violence. As Moyo’s story shows, this includes taking a serious look at gun violence in the country.

According to a United Nations survey of 69 countries, South Africa has one of the highest firearm related homicide rates in the world, second only to Columbia. Solid updated data is lacking, but a 1999 Medical Research Council (MRC) study found that a woman was killed by her intimate partner every six hours – the highest reported rate anywhere in the world. In that year, one in three women killed died because of a firearm; of those, half were shot by their intimate partner; 71% were shot in their own homes.

In South Africa, the rate of intimate femicide followed by perpetrator suicide also greatly exceeds reported rates elsewhere.

Yet the links between guns and gender violence go beyond femicide statistics. “The term ‘gun violence’ includes gun deaths, injuries as well as incidents in which guns are used to intimidate persons, for example like in situations of domestic violence,” points out Natalie Jaynes, National Director of Gun Free South Africa. “While shootings and killings are the most common forms of gun violence, even more women encounter gun violence at home in terms of intimidation with a firearm.”

Beyond the obvious need to simply reduce the number of guns in circulation, restricting firearm ownership by known offenders is an effective, but widely unimplemented, strategy to save lives. The Domestic Violence and Firearms Control Acts have provisions to help prevent threats from progressing to use of force. “A woman can request the removal or a person can be deemed ‘unfit to possess a firearm’ if a protection order has been issued, or if the person has expressed an intention to kill or do harm with the firearm,” adds Jaynes. “This small provision, if exercised, could save lives.”

In some cases women may be unaware of the right to request removal of a firearm. In other cases, it is evident that victims still encounter significant obstacles attempting to have a firearm removed, echoed by several women writing during the “I” Stories. “He would even point his gun at me. Many violent times followed. Each time I reported these to the local police station, I got no joy. They would tell me that I had no physical evidence such as a ‘blue-eye.'”

Surprisingly, statistics show that legally-owned firearms are very often the problem. One woman writer told of her added predicament, her abusive husband was also a policeman. “He went to his safe took out his gun and went outside he then shot in the air. He came back inside, pointed the firearm at my nose, and told me to smell the smoke that came out of the gun. He told me that he was going to shoot the baby and me and then pointed the gun at the baby.”

Gun threats are also used in sexual assaults. Natasha Kangale was just 12 when she was raped by a stranger. “I felt a gun on my back, so I had no choice. He took me to his place in Berea. There he raped me,” she recalls in her story. “It was not easy getting home but I managed to get there. Before going in the house, he threatened me by saying that ‘if you tell anyone about what happened…I know you… I will kill you.'”

Getting to the heart of gun violence will mean challenging many of the gender norms existing in society. As Jaynes points, out, “Violence is often used as a way to affirm masculinity and gain respect and control. Firearms can play an important role in this, because in many contexts they are symbols of status, power, and self-protection.”

Elmien Durieux of the Foundation for a Safe South Africa (FSSA) agrees, and points to the next generation as a source of hope. “If we begin at an early age to change the stereotypes associated with being manly and womanly, we will produce a new generation that thinks of the different genders as equal and thus less likely to commit gender-based violence.”

FSSA has pioneered the creation of Youth Zones, across the country, recognising that young people will determine if the future is a safer one. “Young people need to say no to guns – be at the forefront of advocacy for a gun free South Africa for their generation; they need to tell when they are, or they know of people who are being sexually harassed or abused – be each other’s protectors.”

Like most aspects of gender violence, addressing gun violence will require a myriad of approaches. Reducing the numbers of guns on the street, must be accompanied by the implementation of existing legal frameworks. Public awareness and communication campaigns need to address not only lack of knowledge on the issue, but also seek to counter deeply engrained gender norms that make this kind of violence socially accepted. There is an old notion that violating the human rights of one of us, violates the human rights of all of us. As long as we continue to accept guns in our midst, none of us will be free to live in a safer South Africa.

Deborah Walter is the Director of CMFD (Community Media For Development) Productions. This article is part of a special series on the 16 Days of Activism for the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that offers fresh views on everyday news. For more information on the 16 Days Campaign go to www.genderlinks.org.za



0 thoughts on “Speaking out against gun violence”

Sheila Mmusi says:

The story reminded me of how a friend of mine enjured being threatened by her ex-husband with a gun for his own infidelity. She appeared to be “used” to it, as she would say ‘go ahead and do it”, this was one incident that I witnessed. I was not aware that it is possible for a woman to request a court to remove the gun from this person.

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