Recently, newspapers carried an article about a 44-year old gender activist who was raped behind some bushes at night. Most readers likely skipped over it and turned to the sports pages. Perhaps partly because of the familiarity of the scenario, or partly to protect the reader from yet another story about “bad and violent things” happening in South Africa.
The article grabbed my attention during my morning cup of tea, squeezed the air out of my lungs and the sleep from my eyes. The woman who survived the attack, took the 14th Avenue off-ramp from the N1, near Northcliff, Johannesburg, on a weekday night. She was pulled over by officers of the Johannesburg Metro Police Department and asked to produce her driving licence. She was allegedly dragged out of her car and gang raped at gunpoint by four officers. They then tried to destroy some of the evidence that the multiple rapes would have left behind inside her, and threatened death to her family if she reported the incident. The brave woman reported her ordeal none-the-less and is currently trying to recover in a private psychiatric hospital. The gruesome details dripped off the page.
I realised that this woman could have been me. I am middle-class, I have a car and I have medical aid. I am a gender-based anti-violence activist. I have frequently driven along 14th Avenue at 9pm. I would stop if asked by someone officious in uniform, as the police should protect, not harm.
Not any of the protective psychological barriers that I usually put up to help me believe “It won’t happen to me” worked this time around. The unpleasant truth is that these barriers are never really effective. The reality is that every woman in South Africa faces a daily threat of being raped, and perhaps killed. The trappings of middle-class life definitely minimise this threat as we have the means to live with high walls, house alarms, patrolled suburbs, highly secured workplaces and electric-fenced holiday resorts.
We have more social capital and our better-resourced stations might dispatch police more quickly if we called in a panic. These barriers might reduce our vulnerability to stranger rape, but does little to alleviate intimate partner violence, domestic abuse or “date rape”.
Working class and unemployed women living in the badlands of apartheid-forged townships and neglected rural areas do not have these life-saving essentials, and are born into this “truth of threat”. The menace of rape and assault by strangers, friends or family is as ever-present as the flies that gather around trash bags uncollected by non-existent or dysfunctional municipalities.
Women who are lesbian, working as sex workers, hailing from another country or province, or who are homeless, face the “truth of threat” in more wicked compounded ways. And have even less means or social support structures to help them recover from the trauma of GBV.
In the end, all of us have to rely on the same police service, court structure and criminal justice network to bring offenders to book. We all have to live with the consequences of the havoc that GBV wreaks on our country (In pure, cold economic terms the damage is estimated at R28billion to R40bn a year).
All women, men and children suffer if more than half of the population in our houses, streets, factories, religious institutions, political parties, stokvels, markets or malls, live in acute fear, cannot reach their potential, cannot care for themselves and others, and may be mutilated and violated. We all lose. And terribly, terribly so.
It is this reality that underlies the philosophy, and drives the work of Sonke Gender Justice. Sonke is an NGO that works on the prevention of violence, and advocates for adequate services and support to survivors of GBV.
It works at community level by running workshops on challenging violent masculinities and harmful gender norms – for men and women.
Where we find systematic social problems, we advocate for social change by engaging democracy-supporting institutions such as the SA Human Rights Commission or the Commission for Gender Equality, launching court challenges, or lobbying Parliament. We put pressure on government and private institutions to forge and change policies and laws squarely in line with the values of gender transformation, violence prevention and social justice.
It is this “truth of threat”, and the many other reasons GBV should be combated, that drive my Sonke colleagues, our allies and me to demand that government urgently pass a national strategic plan (NSP) on gender-based violence. South Africa desperately needs an ambitious, fully-costed and multi-sectoral plan that effectively addresses the factors that give rise to GBV, and that provides comprehensive services to survivors of violence.
During Women’s Month, it is important that all of us do not look – or shy – away from the reality of GBV, and take a principled stand by calling on government to implement a GBV NSP urgently. GBV need not be a South African reality.