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#HearMeToo: Are people finally listening to South Africa’s women?

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#HearMeToo: Are people finally listening to South Africa’s women?

Lisa-Anne Julien

05 Dec 2018

4min min read
  • Women--Crimes against
  • Women's rights
O O

n 25th November, amid the usual political fanfare, South Africa’s Minister for Women in the Presidency, Bathabile Dlamini, launched 16 Days of Activism of No Violence Against Women and Children in Melmoth, KwaZulu-Natal (KZN). A day later, while at the Durban Magistrates’ Court for a divorce hearing, a KZN police officer, Phumlani Chiliza, killed his wife and her brother during proceedings. 

And once more, it appeared that a message intended for the protection of women from violence was to fall upon deaf ears. Given that South Africa has a murder rate of women more than three times that of the global average (according to the latest data from the World Health Organisation), it all too often seems inconceivable for the country to rise above such grim statistics, despite its impressive legislative frameworks and strong civil society opposing violence against women.

Research study

This, in large part, is due to the many factors that contribute to the continuation of this violence in South Africa. This is evident in the recent release of findings from the Sonke Change Trial, a research study on levels of violence in Diepsloot, Johannesburg,  jointly supported by Sonke Gender Justice and the University of the Witwatersrand. The intervention involved establishing community actions teams (CATs) and using experienced community mobilisers to create awareness around GBV, alcohol abuse and HIV and AIDS.  Baseline data in 2016 was extremely concerning, with 56% of the 2 600 men interviewed reporting they had either raped or beaten a woman in the previous 12 months. 

After 18 months, although the intervention had reached 14 000 men and women, the hopeful expectation that there would be a greater reduction in violence in the intervention clusters did not materialise. Although there was an overall reduction of both physical and sexual violence, there was little difference between intervention clusters and the control clusters. More perturbingly, the levels of alcohol abuse rose in the intervention group. 

As part of the 16 Days campaign, the study team discussed a number of possible reasons for these findings. The dynamic nature of communities, where people move between intervention and control clusters prompted the team to acknowledge that a clear demarcation of who was receiving information on GBV and who wasn’t, hadn’t been clear. Additionally, the inherent difficulties with most research projects – that of verifying data, and the limits of measuring change using select indicators – were accepted. The overarching message however, was that change is difficult and takes time. 

But despite this complex terrain of violence, one can only hope it is not too reckless or naïve to believe that this year’s 16 Days of Activism is different as there are voices making a decidedly different type of ruckus in this year’s campaign: that of anger and political will. 

This year’s 16 Days campaign has been propelled by the energy of two major events: #TheTotalShutdown, the intersectional women’s movement on GBV and its direct consequence, the National Summit against Gender-based Violence and Femicide. The former, armoured with an exhausted tolerance for the unprecedented levels of GBV, organised a march to the Union Buildings on 1 August. Activists waited outside the Union Buildings well into the late hours, demanding that President Cyril Ramaphosa come out and accept their memorandum. Not only did the President do this, but he also promised a National Summit – held in November –  to discuss concerns reflected in the memorandum, including an integrated approach to GBV. 

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South African President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Getty Images)

Far from the usual government-led event with policies and programmes being paraded as accepted formulas for success, the National Summit was a space of truth and venting. And President Ramaphosa and other government officials were forced to do what activists have been demanding for many years: listen. Powerful personal testimonies and even visual demonstrations of scars left by incidents and/or lifetimes of abuse, brought home the physical, emotional, mental and financial costs women bear as a result of violence. The National Summit culminated in a declaration which outlined, among other commitments, the immediate establishment of an interim multi-stakeholder council, ensuring adequate resourcing for GBV and drafting of a National Strategic Plan on GBV and Femicide by March 2019. 

It has therefore been heartening to see, during this year’s 16 Days of Activism campaign, the convening of the Gender Responsive Planning, Budgeting, Monitoring and Evaluation and Auditing Summit, co-hosted by the Department of Women and UN Women. During this summit, a cross-section of actors from the private, public and civil society sectors deliberated on ways to mainstream gender analysis into institutional budgeting processes. It is increasingly clear from years of stalled interventions that if adequate funding is not allocated to the cause, that no meaningful results can be achieved. A clear example of this is shown by a 365-day national action plan to end gender violence 2007-2009; a review of which showed that the plan was not adequately costed and, as a result, eventually lost momentum.

From 16 days to 365 days

With such a track record, however, some campaigners have remained more cautious about the gains of this year’s 16 Days campaign and actions. One of them is Nomafrench Mbombo, the Women’s Network Leader for South African opposition party the Democratic Alliance, who believes it will take more than 16 days for men to deal with their high levels of toxic masculinity . This sentiment was echoed by Lesley Ncube of the #TheTotal Shutdown in a recent media interview, in which she called for the 16 Days to be transformed to 365 days, in the same way HIV and AIDS messaging occupied a sustained, central position in the public consciousness in the early 2000s. Anything less, Ncube argued, would be tokenism or an attempt to pacify the voices of discontent. 

Organisations such as Gender Links – which takes a comprehensive look at how violence plays out in different aspects of women’s lives – have long advocated for the same. And this year, the organisation’s calendar of events for 16 Days of Activism reflects their regional focus with a schedule of meetings on topics ranging from safe abortion to child marriage.

As this year’s campaign heads into its final week, it is hoped that during the myriad events set to take place, women will continue to talk. From female traditional leaders, to trans and gender non-conforming women, to teenage girls taking to the streets to highlight the non-relationship between rape and clothing choice, women have to keep talking. Hopefully, they will finally be heard. 

(Main image: Teen activist Zulaikha Patel and member of the Black Radical Feminists hold a placard during their silent protest against gender based violence, rape and abuse near the Magistrate's Court on 30 November 2018 in Pretoria. – Phill Magakoe/AFP/Getty Images)