28 February 2013

South Africa: We Need Change Agents to Prevent Crimes Against Women

press release

Cape Town — There has been a lot of media attention given to violence against women recently. The whole country was shocked by the details of the brutal rape and murder of Anene Booysen a few weeks ago. Women in Atlantis and Phillipi have been killed by people they knew in the past week. And a woman was recently gang-raped in Grabouw.

I understand the pain that the families of these women are going through. My own sister was raped and murdered. I know that as much as women and families hurt, they can feel the further indignity of incompetence from the authorities, as I did.

These incidents are all tragedies as is every act of violence against women. But I have used the phrase 'media attention' deliberately. That is because we should not delude ourselves into thinking that these incidents are part of a sudden 'spike' in gender-based violence. These events are part of a long-established pattern of violence that has roots much deeper than being merely stand-alone anomalies. They are the newest additions to a long history of gender-based prejudice that is one of the defining scars of our national identity. There are numerous theories offered to contextualise this history. One of them lays much of the blame with substance abuse.

It is true that, here in the Western Cape, we have higher rates of alcohol and drug abuse and an accompanying rate of associated crimes. We know that intoxication can lead to people acting violently against people around them. Indeed, it could be argued that patterns of extreme and consistent substance abuse, especially in deprived areas, results in self-repeating cycles of violence and substance abuse. Children are neglected; people lose all motivation to seek employment; and the community descends even deeper into a misery.

Indeed, many academics and social commentators see this as a sequence of events that explains much of it. Poverty leads to substance abuse. Substance abuse leads to consistent intoxication. Consistent intoxication leads to violence. The pattern repeats. These things may be true. But they cannot excuse or justify nor can they be the whole story.

Crimes against women; rape; extreme abuse - they happen to South African women across the barriers of race and class. Whether you live in Phillipi, an exclusive gated community, a farm, a wealthy suburb, the menace of violence is not far away. And the violence is perpetrated by people known to the women in the vast majority of cases. This is not to suggest the need for general panic nor is it right to unfairly implicate all men in our society. But it is to say that the incidents of abuse are connected across space by an intangible network of violence that encompasses the whole of our society.

Perhaps part of the answer lies in the particularly brutal nature of our past. In the decades leading up to liberation in 1994, our country was structured so that people were pitted against each other. It was an artificial fragmentation that required ever greater pressure to maintain. And the more pressure that was applied, the more the cracks opened. And we live in the deeply fissured society that is the result: pockets of violence linked across a cracked plain of social wounds.

We need a range of interventions to try and deal with this problem, one of the most urgent of our times. And as Premier Helen Zille says, it needs to be a 'whole of society' approach.

The City of Cape Town is doing its part. For example, the Metro Police are running a domestic violence awareness programme in Bonteheuwel where residents are being trained to be activists in their community. They will be able to immediately respond to incidents of domestic violence and follow-up at the homes of the victims, providing counselling. This is in addition to the fact that our specialised Drug and Gang Units continue to fight the causes of social crime in our communities.

Furthermore, on the social development front, we are rolling out programmes of information on domestic and gender-based violence, including steps people can take to report incidents and receive counselling. This programme will be focused on using all partners in the community, including residents, NGOs and the security services, both local and national. This will entrench a grid of immediate responsiveness across our society that can react to, and possibly prevent, these crimes from occurring.

But if we take a 'whole of society' approach, then everyone needs to be involved in this struggle, no matter what their status. We cannot allow derogatory remarks against women to go unchecked in our public space. We cannot let the objectification of women continue as some sort of socially fashionable trend. We cannot let discrimination and chauvinism, in all of their forms, endure.

That takes everyone, from the country's leaders down. But we cannot confine this struggle at the level of elites. That rhetoric has little use for ordinary women. Everyone needs to be a change agent carrying our collective intolerance of this abuse into our communities, into our neighbourhoods and into our homes. Indeed, it even starts at the level of parenting and treating our boys and girls equally and teaching them to respect all. The change needs to go beyond outrage. It must turn awareness into action.

This country has a history of struggle. That struggle has defined our national politics in recent times and, in many ways, our national identity. But let us not let the storied history of our political struggle distract us from the immediate reality of the decades long struggle of women in this country to feel safe, secure and respected.

And in this struggle of our times, let us all become freedom fighters.

Integrated Strategic Communication and Branding Department, City of Cape Town

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