The Sixteen Days of Activism Against Gender Violence campaign that runs annually from 25 November to 10 December is this year running under the banner "from peace in the home to peace in the world: Let's challenge militarism and end violence against women."
Over the years, many governments have made commitments to end Gender-Based Violence (GBV). They have drafted National Action Plans (NAPs). Various messages have been devised to raise awareness on the importance of ending GBV. Yet, according to the findings of research undertaken by Gender Links in three countries, GBV is on the rise.
The research carried out in Botswana, Mauritius and four provinces in South Africa has some glaring findings about the levels of GBV in these countries. Over three quarters (77%) women in Limpopo, 67% of women in Botswana, 51% of women in Gauteng, 45% of women in Western Cape and 36% of women in KwaZulu Natal and 24% of women in Mauritius, have experienced some form of GBV at least once in their lifetime both within and outside their intimate relationships.
A higher proportion of men in Gauteng (78%) and KwaZulu Natal (41%) admitted to perpetrating violence against women than what women reported. Slightly lower proportion of men, compared to the proportion of women, reported perpetrating GBV in Limpopo (48%), Botswana (44%), Western Cape (35%) and Mauritius (23%). Overall the high level of corroboration between what women say they experience, and the way men report behaving, confirms the high level of GBV in these countries.
These findings beg the question of whether the campaigns, national laws and NAPs are enough to deal with the high prevalence of GBV in Southern Africa. Will Southern African countries halve the levels of GBV by 2015 in line with the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development?
Sithembiso* lives in deep rural Zimbabwe and she has endured several forms of gender violence. She married Themba* who had psychological scars from the liberation struggle. Sithembiso had to occasionally deal with her husband's temper, which often culminated in fights and left her with bruises on her body.
She endured the physical abuse but her husband's infidelity also brought HIV into their matrimonial home. Sithembiso, being the loyal rural wife provided care to her sick husband for almost two years. Themba vehemently refused to take antiretroviral treatment, as he strongly believed that he had been bewitched. To his grave, Themba's family also shared his belief.
Upon Themba's death, his brother came to loot Themba's property including livestock because he felt it within his rights to inherit his brother's property. He left Sithembiso with nothing.
A year down the line, out of desperation and poverty, Sithembiso remarried Micah* her brother-in-law from another village whom she hardly knew, as is expected by culture and tradition. Within two weeks of her new marriage, Sithembiso found out that Micah abused alcohol. He started to beat her up. Micah chased Sithembiso away and accused her of being a whore and a witch who had caused Themba's death. He also barred her from staying at her ruined homestead.
A flashback of how her life had unfolded brought tears to Sithembiso's eyes. She neither had a home nor source of income. She had HIV. She went to the village headman to ask him to preside over her case and her brother-in-law. The village headman further referred Sithembiso to the village chief who in turn said he could not keep whores in his village.
Sithembiso's story echoes those of many women in Southern Africa.
On the one hand, there is the man who feels that he has to exert his power in the family by abusing a woman. On the other, there is the extended family system where one dominating voice (usually a man) will determine what the future of a widow will be. With many communities still putting their trust in the family system to avoid washing "dirty linen" in public, the fate of widows usually lies within the family's hands.
However, there is the justice system that needs to protect the vulnerable and citizens at large. The gap with the justice system lies in its inaccessibility and the lack of knowledge on how it works. Many women who reside in rural areas often have to turn to the traditional justice system, which is unjust.
Governments and civil society must educate women including those who reside in rural areas like Sithembiso about GBV and the laws that are in place to protect them. There is need for programmes by all stakeholders to demystify attitudes and perceptions about power relations between women and men in society. Huge investments into radio programmes and mobile phone GBV messages should be made so that rural women, who are not reached by the 16 Days of Activism campaign, can access messages on gender violence.
It is also high time that governments and activists start talking about the economic empowerment of women. The relationship between economic empowerment and ending GBV is not necessarily linear. GBV cuts across class, colour and race. But women who are economically independent have a far greater range of choices, and recourse to legal redress.
This is why Gender Links (GL) has chosen to focus its efforts on working with local councils across ten Southern African countries that have opted to become Centres of Excellence for Gender with flagship action plans on GBV. In 2013, GL will work with 50 councils on supporting women survivors of violence to access economic opportunities and become self- sufficient. With its slogan, "peace begins at home" GL believes that if the war against GBV can be won community by community, the dream of a region free of GBV will become a reality.