Women’s rights are still just so many words

Women’s rights are still just so many words

Date: August 2, 2010
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As the Sixteen Days of Activism Against Gender Violence gets under way, one of the greatest challenges facing our nation is closing the gap between the rhetoric of gender equality and the reality on the ground.

On Valentine’s Day 2004 a deeply ironic tragedy struck the Commission on Gender Equality, the body created to “promote” and “protect” equality between women and men in the new South Africa. The husband of Complaints Officer Hunadi Madidimalo, whose job it had been to follow up on violations of women’s rights, shot her in cold blood in their Ennerdale home. Minutes later, he turned the trigger on himself.

Madidimalo had lived with the daily irony of helping other women apply new laws to make a difference to their lives while going home to an abusive relationship. Her strategy was clear: to empower herself economically so that she could be as independent as possible. Full of enterprise, she started a spaza shop, bought herself a house and a car.

The story goes that on the day of her murder, Madidimalo’s husband had demanded the car keys so that he could go and visit a girlfriend. She refused to hand them over. The keys were later found hidden away on her person- a powerful symbol of her bid to stand her ground right to the tragic end.

As the Sixteen Days of Activism Against Gender Violence gets under way, one of the greatest challenges facing our nation is losing the gap between the rhetoric of gender equality and the reality on the ground.

South Africa has one of the most progressive constitutions in the world for gender equality. The substantial increase of women in parliament since 1994 has created a formidable force for legislative change. Key gender justice laws include the Domestic violence, Maintenance, Recognition of Customary Marriages and the Choice of Termination of Pregnancy Acts.

Test cases on women’s rights continue to broaden definitions and create greater understanding. The recent overturning of Anita Ferreira’s life sentence for hiring hit men  to kill her abusive partner is testimony to a more empathetic approach by the judiciary towards cases of gender violence.

The courts have also increasingly issued tough messages on gender violence, for example in the March 2004 ruling on Naspers Magazine in which Judge Hennie Nel made it clear that the failure of management to deal with a sexual harassment case had reated unbearable trauma for the employee.

The Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Development has established 52 Special Offenses Courts around the country which chieve a 64 percent conviction rate compared to the seven percent conviction rate for sexual offences in other courts.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) unit has made significant progress in the creation of Thuthuzela (“we care”) centres across outh Africa where rape survivors can get treatment, access to a police officer and counseling services in one place.

Still, South Africa has among the highest levels of gender violence in the world. Every six days, an intimate male partner kills a woman in circumstances such as those Madidimalo found herself in.

Latest South African Police Service (SAPS) statistics show that while there has been a general decline in other kinds of crime (for example carjacking and bank robberies) levels of rape continue to increase.

During the ten years of democracy the number of reported cases of rape has increased by 17.8 percent to its 2003/2004 level of 52,733 cases. The Law Reform Commission estimates that there are in fact 1.7 million cases of rape per year, meaning that the vast majority of rape cases do not get reported. Many cases also get withdrawn, often because of societal pressure. SAPS statistics on child abuse (6504 cases in 2003/2004) have been disputed by those working in the field who say they alone have handled more cases than this.

Fifty percent of all cases before the courts are of rape. Low conviction rates in the normal courts, where the majority of these cases are heard, point to the inadequacies of the criminal justice system in addressing sexual offences.

A Medical Research Council Study into the conditions of rape survivors in Gauteng in 2002 found that the treatment of survivors by police and medical court personnel was deplorable. Recent media reports have highlighted the stress experience by judicial personnel working in sexual offences courts and the lack of support services for them.

The fact that there are no police statistics at all on domestic violence (the closest category being “indecent assault”) shows that this is still hardly regarded as a crime. Estimates suggest that one in three women are in abusive relationships of one kind or the other: physical, emotional, economic or a combination of these factors.

Women, and especially young women, are among the most vulnerable to HIV and AIDS À“ the pandemic that has accentuated the powerlessness of women in negotiating safe sex.

Less than two percent of those who get raped each year get drugs to prevent HIV infection. This is despite research that shows that in South Africa those raped have a 40 percent risk of becoming HIV positive if they do not get post-exposure prophylaxisis or PEP within 72 hours (for adults, and 24 hours for children).

Delays in passing the Sexual Offences Bill, and the uncertainties over the treatment clause that would ensure ready access to PEP at all health facilities are a major source of concern.

A recent opinion survey showing that almost half of South Africa’s men believe that a woman who drinks and wears a mini skirt is “asking for trouble” shows that the single biggest challenge is changing the kind of attitudes and socialisation that make a man feel he is entitled to use his wife’s car for his philandering – and kill her if she says no.

In retrospect, the easiest part is over. Changing laws can be swift. Giving them effect, and changing the mindsets that render them ineffective, is a much more demanding task.

This is why, in this year’s Sixteen Days of Activism campaign, which includes a far reaching “cyber dialogue” or Internet component, far more emphasis will be placed on root causes and on empowerment, without which we are winning the battles without winning the war.

Colleen Lowe Morna is the Executive Director of Gender Links.

This article is part of the GEM Opinion and Commentary Service that provides views and perspectives on current events.

janine@genderlinks.org.za for more information.




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