Opinion article by Dr Claire Westman, Postdoctoral Researcher at the Free State Centre for Human Rights, University of the Free State

The 25th of November marked the beginning of 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence (GBV), in South Africa and the world. This is a global, annual campaign that began on November 25 as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and runs until 10 December, International Human Rights Day.

In South Africa this campaign is referred to as 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children.

The theme for this year’s campaign is “The Year of Charlotte Mannya Maxeke – 16 Days of Activism – Moving from awareness to accountability”.

According to the Parliament of the Republic of South Africa (2021), “The campaign aims to raise awareness of the negative impact that violence and abuse have on women and children and to rid society of abuse permanently.”

It suggests that GBV “continues to cripple our society, depriving women and children of their right to be safe and continue with their daily lives without fear of being murdered or raped, if not both”.

The 16 Days of Activism campaign thus calls on South Africans to be aware of GBV, call out those who commit such violence, and no longer protect those (primarily men) who benefit from the abuse and subordination of women and children.

While GBV includes various forms of violence, such as emotional, psychological and physical, a pervasive form of such violence is sexual violence.

Sexual violence continues to increase unabated

In contrast to the campaign’s calls for an end to violence against women, South Africa’s most recent crime statistics reveal that instead of decreasing, sexual violence continues to increase unabated.

These statistics show that during the three-month period of 1 July to 30 September 2021, nearly 10 000 people (primarily women) were raped, and of a sample of 6 144 of these cases, 3 951 were committed in the victims’ homes.

According to these statistics, there has been a 7.1% increase in the number of rapes committed during this period compared to the previous reporting period. It is well-known, however, that the number of rapes and incidences of GBV that are reported are only a fraction of those that take place.

This prevalence of sexual violence has also been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. As an example of this, the South African Police Service (SAPS) received over 2 300 calls during the first week of South Africa’s strict lockdown, alone, related to GBV, and between March and June of 2020, 21 women and children had been killed by intimate partners in South Africa.

While the government has implemented some measures to address issues around sexual and GBV, clearly not enough is being done to deal with the endemic levels of violence against women. Pumla Gqola (2015: 3) refers to the constant threat of violence women in South

Africa experience as the ‘female fear factory’. She argues that sexual violence is used to police women’s behaviour in an attempt to ensure that they adhere to the hetero-patriarchal norms that pervade the nation.

Within this hetero-patriarchal logic the gains women have made socially, economically, and legally are seen as a threat to the patriarchal foundation and the power it affords men. Consequently, Gqola (2015: 15) asserts that “it is no coincidence that South African women, who, on paper are so empowered and have won so many freedoms, are living with the constant fear of violence”.

She further adds that “an effective backlash always does much more than neutralise gains, though, it reverses the gains we see everywhere and it reminds those who might benefit from such gains that they are not quite free”.

In other words, sexual and gender-based violence are seen as effective means through which to keep women in positions of subordination and maintain the patriarchal status quo.

So, while it is vital that government create measures that punish perpetrators, and allow for women to leave abusive settings, it is also imperative that the discourse around sexual violence be addressed. Toxic discourse is often used as a means to justify violence, and in patriarchal societies, it is often this kind of discourse that positions women as inferior to men, and women as unworthy of respect.

Rape myths and rape culture underlie much of the discourse that allows for rape to be as prevalent as it is in South Africa. Lankster (2019) claims that “these myths include that females are to be blamed for their own rape, that victims ‘ask for it’, and that victims enjoy being raped”.

Similarly, much discourse perpetuates the notion that women cannot be raped by their husbands. That is, because they are married, the man is entitled to sex, and therefore, any sex within the marriage is consensual.

Clearly then the endemic nature of sexual violence stems from the socio-symbolic positionings of men and women within hetero-patriarchal cultures and their corresponding discourses and ideologies.

If sexual violence is to be effectively addressed, then these pervasive and toxic notions need to be challenged and dismantled.

Discourse around sexual violence ignores the perpetrators

Additionally, most of the discourse around sexual violence focuses on the victims / survivors, while ignoring the perpetrators of the violence. The burden is placed on women to avoid situations that might be dangerous, leave abusive relationships, and “break the silence” (Gqola, 2015: 15) around sexual violence.

The responsibility for preventing and combating sexual violence is thus removed from men, who are the primary perpetrators, and women are impelled to ‘protect themselves’ from these seemingly abstract figures who commit such violence.

As such, a shift to a discourse that places the onus on men to call out other men, reflect on their own attitudes and behaviours towards women and to actively work to put an end to sexual violence needs to occur. President Cyril Ramaphosa (2021), asserted that “this year’s 16 Days of Activism campaign aims to shift from awareness to accountability and create an environment for men to play a greater role in GBV prevention.”

However, while the government impels the members of the nation to move towards accountability, the government itself perhaps needs to take heed of its own advice.

As recently as the 16 November 2021, Icosa leader, Jeffrey Donson, a man convicted of rape, was elected to the position of mayor within the Kannaland Municipality. This was done with the support of the ANC.

After outcries around Donson being elected mayor, the ANC has now claimed it will “review its decision to form a coalition with Icosa”, however, this has not led to Donson’s removal from the mayoral post or seemingly led to much concern from the government as to how such a person is eligible for this position to begin with.

The government claims it is against sexual and GBV, and urges us to hold men accountable, and yet, they have endorsed the placement of a man charged with rape into a powerful governmental position (something that is not altogether unfamiliar with many positions of authority in South Africa).

Greater accountability is needed from the government

In order to address GBV, greater accountability is needed from the government, along with a much stronger stance on gender-based and sexual violence.

As Gqola (2015: 15) so succinctly states, we need “to pressure the government to create a criminal justice system that works to bring the possibility of justice to rape survivors” – a government that holds itself accountable, a justice system that holds rapists accountable, and a society that holds itself and the men within it accountable.

Overall, while the 16 Days of Activism campaign has admirable intentions (and is used by many rights organisations and NGOs as a means through which to actively create awareness and address violence), one wonders whether this campaign is merely used by the government as a form of political lip service.

A way to make it seem as though they care about GBV, when in reality little is being done to combat the war on women’s bodies and the effects this violence has on women’s lived realities, as well as the ways in which violence impacts upon women’s abilities to effectively participate and thrive in the democratic nation.