Johannesburg — South African women are gearing up for International Women's Day on Sunday with pepper spray pop-up stalls and rape prevention workshops so that they feel safer on their daily commutes.
Students, activists and self-defence professionals said it was better to prepare for an attack than wait for one to happen in a country where a woman is murdered every three hours.
"I was tired of being cat-called, grabbed and made to feel uncomfortable just for wearing a skirt," said Karabo Moshodi, founder of the #PepperSprayCampaign, which is giving away 1,000 sprays to women in Johannesburg, South Africa's largest city.
About 3,000 women were murdered in South Africa in 2018 - more than five times the global average, according to the World Health Organization - as the nation struggles to overcome a history of violence and profound inequality.
A 101-year-old woman was raped by an unknown man who broke into her house on Sunday, according to local media reports - one of the latest brazen attacks in a spate of sex crimes that activists describe as an "epidemic" of violence against women.
In South Africa, tear-inducing pepper sprays are easily accessible in outdoor camping stores and even pharmacies, ranging in price from 60 to 180 rand ($4 to $12).
But many women are still unaware that they can carry one to defend themselves, said Moshodi, who hopes to "re-educate on the benefits of pepper spray".
"Carrying pepper spray with me hasn't given me complete freedom, just less fear to walk 200 metres down the road," said 26-year-old Moshodi, who left her job as a life skills coach for vulnerable youth to campaign full-time.
Moshodi used crowdfunding to buy the pepper sprays and T-shirts for 15 trained volunteers who will arm and train women. She plans to use social media on International Women's Day to connect her campaign to women worldwide.
"We are breaking down taboos and myths around women having the right to protect themselves," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview, adding that women get basic self-defence and pepper spray training before receiving a spray.
Jennifer Brown, a self-defence trainer for women in Johannesburg since 2014, said basic skills could "save lives".
"Violence against women is a global problem," said 43-year-old Brown who has trained an estimated 8,500 women in rape prevention workshops but is not part of Moshodi's campaign.
"But it does feel more violent and more brutal here in South Africa."
City authorities are supporting the #PepperSprayCampaign by providing public spaces, police and help with publicity.
"The city has plans to help expand the campaign to possibly tens of thousands of women," said Moshodi.
In September, thousands of South African women took to the streets to protest after a university student, Uyinene Mrwetyana, was raped and killed at a post office in Cape Town.
Soon after, President Cyril Ramaphosa pledged 1 billion rand to tackle violence against women through initiatives such as strengthening the criminal justice system, training healthcare workers, media campaigns and economically empowering women.
But Moshodi said she wanted to do something positive and practical for women herself, rather than wait for the authorities to make Johannesburg safer.
"I don't want to keep complaining and waiting for government to do something," she said. "One of my greatest realisations is that government is not going to save me. I have to save myself."
($1 = 15.3409 rand) (Reporting by Kim Harrisberg; Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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