29 November 2018

Africa: How Patriarchy Protects Gender Violence Perpetrators

It's the first day[s] of the Sixteen Days of Activism and I am numb, replaying the story of Priscilla Musonda, and reading her book, "Stolen Childhood", written in the USA, in semi-exile from her home country Zambia. A fortnight ago Musonda shared her story at a Voice and Choice workshop hosted by Women in Law Southern Africa, the national focal network of the Southern Africa Gender Protocol Alliance. She recounted with haunting clarity and in graphic detail a lifetime of incest that resulted in four children fathered by her father, two of whom survived.

When the case finally made its way through the tedious legal system to be heard in court, her mother denied that the man, who had been sexually abusing her since age five, was her biological father. He got off, scot free.

Patriarchy doesn't come more menacing than this: a father repeatedly raping his daughter; a mother defending him: our very own version of Josef Fritzl, the Austrian man who kept his daughter Elisabeth in captivity for 24 years and fathered seven children with her, with the collision of his wife, Rosemarie.

Picking up on the momentum of the #MeToo campaign that has witnessed a slew of high profile celebrities and politicians speak out on sexual abuse, UN Women has branded the 2018 campaign #HearMeToo, centring stories such as those of Priscilla Musonda, to give a human face to this year's campaign.

Like Celie in Anne Walker's seminal novel, "The Colour Purple" (also about incest) Musonda is a survivor - not a victim. From being forced to marry her father, a polygamist with three wives, to running away and finishing her education on the streets, to fleeing into semi-exile, Musonda finally reclaimed her life, marrying Swiss national, Reno Schauferlberger, and starting a home for the abused.

Such endings should not blind us to the horror of gender violence, and the need in 2018 to go beyond palliative solutions. Listening to first- hand accounts, as President Cyril Ramaphosa did at the GBV Summit on 1-2 November, is necessary to jolt us out of the numbness that comes with this gross human rights violation being so normalised in our society. But the nub of the matter, to quote the President, is that ending GBV "requires that we address societal issues of patriarchy, economic relations and changing the way of thinking about gender relations.

Patriarchy means that men feel entitled to exert economic and other forms of power over women. This can lead to situations where women may find themselves tolerating the injustices perpetrated against them simply because they may have inadequate economic or emotional resources to walk away from a dangerous relationship."

South Africans understand oppression better than just about anyone in the world. Now it's time to wake up to an ideology older and more pervasive than apartheid- the belief that men are superior to, and therefore have the right to control women - their bodies, their behaviour, their thoughts. As former constitutional court judge Albie Sachs once said, "the only truly non- racial institution in South Africa is patriarchy."

The #TotalShutdown campaign that presented the President with 24 demands for the 24 years of democracy that have left women still groping for the fruits of freedom started an unstoppable process of putting GBV at the centre of political discourse. Unless the Sixteen Days makes deconstructing patriarchy the ultimate goal, justice will not be delivered to those summoning the courage to speak up and speak out.

(Colleen Lowe Morna is CEO of Gender Links).

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