Gender Links (Johannesburg)

8 March 2013

Africa: Happy Women's Day?

Today marks International Woman's Day (IWD). The United Nations theme for 2013 is "A promise is a promise: Time for action to end violence against women." IWD as well as CSW's theme "Elimination of forms of violence against women and girls" has set the year's goal as The Gender Agenda: Gaining Momentum.

The call to end violence has been a recurring theme and fundamentalobjective since the birth of CSW in 1946. It is 2013! If one peruses the United Nations IWD list of themes since the mid-nineties, almost all ofthese goals are still unmet,especially those about violence against women;

1998 Women and Human Rights,

1999 World Free of Violence Against Women,

2007 Ending Impunity for Violence Against Women and Girls,

2009Women and Men United to End Violence Against Women and Girls.

Gaining momentum? I think not. Understandably, this year's theme bears a definite element of regret, guilt and an almost desperate reassurance; "A promise is a promise".

Violence against women is a persistent global crisis. Across the world, one in three women arevictims of some form of violence. It seems that most countries have laws in place, but the implementation is apparently as inert as the paper itis written on. This is a common phenomenon across the globe. South Africa has one of the best Domestic Violence Acts in the world yet the reality on the ground is grossly contradictory.

Based on research conducted in South Africa by Gender Links, 77% of women in Limpopo; 51% of women in Gauteng; 45% of women in the Western Cape and 36% of women in Kwa-Zulu Natal, report experiencing some form of violence at least once in their lifetime. It is also well documented that the most common form of violence is intimate partner violence.

Dr Lesley Ann Foster, founder and executive director of South African based MasimanyaneWomen's Support Centre, has been working with domestic violencematters since 1994. She co-hosted a collaborative workshop as part of CSW's NGO panel events in New York yesterday.

According to Foster the common root cause of all domestic violence across the world is gender inequality and patriarchy. Furthermore, the legislation is not effective for a number of mutually reinforcing problems at a government and policy level."Our Department of Women Children and People with Disabilities is a basket case. We are all lumped together. Women's issues are infantalised and this takes away from the complexity of gender equality", explainedFoster. She also went on to saythat there is a distinct shift away from gender equality, meaning the power imbalances are not addressed.

"Gender equality in this country has become gender blind. And we can't simply make invisible the disparities in our society," she says.

It is particularly worrying to hear that there may be a similar shift at the UN; some member states at CSW are apparently no longer in support of 'gender equality', but now pushing for a very problematic dilution to 'gender harmony'. This will certainly slam the brakes on any momentum gained thus far.

Although South Africa is far along in 50/50 representation of women in political positions, we must bear in mind that mere numbers do not necessarily translate to change on the ground. Female parliamentarians work in and through patriarchal political structures, where power is always at play.

Foster explained that while South Africa's Domestic Violence Act is a strong piece of legislation, it needs to be reviewed and improved. The Act's gender neutrality is not only counterintuitive but renders it highly ineffective. "Men actually use it against women, there is no clause that really protects women. It is misused by men because when women report domestic violence men simply go to the police and report the women". Since men have a greater access to information, it is no surprise that men are more aware of domestic violence legislation than women are.

What worsens the situation is police and law enforcement are completely unequipped and undertrained on issues of domestic violence; stations do not have the correct documentation and forms, nor do police officers know about or have access to the Domestic Violence Act.

Although civil society has taken the leading role to inform and empower women about policies and their rights, ultimately the government is responsible and must accountable.

Due to the widespread lack of accountability, Foster has collaborated with several international NGOs to develop Dova; A Human Rights Assessment Instrument on Domestic Violence. It is a seven-stepguide that helps organizations assess whether or not their country is complying with human rights and international obligations. The guide is in line withThe Committee on the Elimination of DiscriminationAgainst Women's (CEDAW) recommendation number 19 on violence against women.

Not only do we need instruments like these to measure and demand accountability from the government, but we need our member states to stick to their obligations to gender equality. We need sound and steadfast conclusions to come out of CSW;conclusions that will actually stimulate tangible change, accelerate momentum and fulfill their promises, so IWD can actually be a happy day celebrated across the world by all women.

Katherine Robinson is the communications manager for Gender Links. This article is part of GL's special coverage of CSW 57.

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