15 / 12 / 2020

South Africa Gender-Based Violence

What does 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence mean when woman are still dying in South Africa and across the globe?

November 25 is the start of what is known as 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence. It is an international campaign, starting on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. But what does this day mean for women across the world? Despite focused attention on gender-based violence (GBV) and many declarations signed by various governments, womxn* still experience violence in their lives.

The Covid-19 pandemic made the situation worse for womxn. Many were locked in homes with their abusers and reports of violence skyrocketed, making an already difficult pandemic even more so for women. Organisations such as Rise Up Against Gender Based Violence, based in Johannesburg, could not cope with the number of calls from women who needed to be evacuated from their homes to places of safety. Many had to leave their belongings behind and faced being outside of their communities and places of employment, so while they were removed from immediate harm, they still suffered much emotional and psychological trauma.

Many activists who work with GBV were not surprised by the shocking reports during the Covid-19 lockdown. The truth is, womxn live in fear all the time. We are afraid in our homes, we fear walking in our neighbourhoods, we fear exercising alone, taking public transport, expressing our views on social media and speaking out against injustice in schools, places of worship and workplaces.  Simply put, womxn live in fear. Even when not in imminent danger, the lives of womxn are designed to avoid violence. Womxn generally think carefully about mundane activities such as taking a walk or using public transport, because each and every one of these activities may put their lives at risk.

Thinking about these seemingly insurmountable challenges that still exist makes it easy to throw one’s hands in the air and give up. We will be forgiven for believing that all that governments do is pay lip service to a pandemic that they have long failed to eradicate. I have personally been cynical of the events that normally take place around this time. If it was not for Covid-19, there would have been event after event organised with caterers and event organisers laughing all the way to the bank, after putting together yet another event where politicians come, sit in the VIP area, give their written speech and go back to business as usual.

But can we afford to give up? Can we afford to keep silent at the face of such injustice? Firstly, while we are justified to lament the failure of government to deal with GBV, we cannot overlook the efforts of many community-based organisations that fight this scourge on a daily basis. Without much financial support, they responded to the challenges of Covid-19 and provided support where it was needed. For example, when government food parcels did not reach people, they organised donations and started soup kitchens to feed the needy. Many of the people they fed were womxn and children who relied on the informal economy to feed themselves. With street vendors, domestic workers and informal traders not being able to work, many faced hunger and abuse in their homes. These food kitchens, run by volunteers, became a lifeline for many families in poorer communities.

So, instead of giving up, I wish to dedicate the 2020 16 Days of Activism to all community activists who work tirelessly to support all survivors of gender-based violence.  I dedicate these 16 days to activists who speak out against GBV, some less publicly than others, even though the pushback from those accused of abusing women is real and violent. I especially dedicate it to women who have spoken out about their experiences of abuse against powerful men, even when they are imprisoned by a criminal justice system that is quick to act when a man claims to be falsely accused, but so slow when women report abuse. Some of these women have not only been arrested but have had strangers pry into their lives, casting aspersions on their characters because they dared speak out against “heroes and faves”.

My strength is renewed by the many voices of women, especially younger women, who call out patriarchy and question its double standards. I am strengthened by many who occupy various spaces and are unapologetically and explicitly feminist. It gives me joy to see the spaces that they have created for themselves and others, spaces to learn, unlearn and care for self and each other. These womxn are claiming their bodies, their sex, their stories and are speaking up about their vulnerabilities and supporting each other in what can be a very lonely and dangerous struggle.

To all womxn who dare speak out, to those who believe those who speak out, to those who take on powerful “untouchable” men, to those who continue doing their own healing work, I salute you. Our collective voices will not be silenced

* This spelling is used as an alternative spelling, to avoid the suggestion of sexism perceived in the sequences m-a-n and m-e-n, and to be inclusive of trans and nonbinary women across the globe