South Africa this week learnt with great shock and sadness of the alleged rape and killing of University of Cape Town student Uyinene Mrwetyana, prompting renewed calls for the reinstatement of the death penalty and more stringent penalties against those convicted of crimes against women and children. The Weekly’s Martin Makoni asked Brigitte Willers of Women4Women, a Cape Town based non-profit organisation focused on female empowerment and community upliftment, about her views on the attacks which seem to continue unabated. Makoni also asked Willers, whose organisation’s mission is to narrow the gap of inequality and build a better tomorrow for the woman of Africa, how the situation of women and children could be improved. Excerpts:
Why do you think there is so much violence against women and children in South Africa?
Women and children are the most vulnerable members of society (taking nothing away from their inner strength as individuals). The fact of the matter is that men are physically stronger than women and children which naturally put them at a bigger risk. The only way this will change is through education and teaching our children of today to respect and protect the vulnerable, this counts for animals as well. It starts with the father and mother teaching their young boys to respect and protect women instead of taking advantage of their physical strength, despite how they (the parents) were brought up.
What really makes one target women and children for rape and possibly killing them?
This is a question only a perpetrator can answer, but what I can say is that if the punishment and repercussion as well as follow through on punishment was sufficient it would deter these acts of violence against women and children. Our system is failing the women and children of the nation.
Besides that women and children are easier targets due to less physical strength, what else motivates perpetrators to target them?
The South African government reports that one of these reasons is the culture of patriarchy in South Africa. Its report states that patriarchy is firmly rooted in culture and fighting it is seen as attempting to destroy South African tradition or South African ideals.
What sort of social influences contribute to this violence against women and children?
In the perfect world it would be great to blame “music” or popular culture but really it is up to each person to control his actions. Drugs and alcohol can also be to blame, but in the case of Cape Town student Uyinene Mrwetyana, she was murdered in broad daylight and this goes for many of the other murders and rapes in our country. I don’t think there is room for blaming outside factors and I am leaning more towards patriarchy as a reason for most of these attacks. The fact that there is no repercussion plays a massive role and people are “desensitised” to these events which makes it even more “OK”.
How much can the country’s current economic situation be attributed to the high rate of cases of violence against women and children?
I think quite a bit. There is no proper education for poorer communities and this could contribute to pursuing “life on the streets” and a career in crime. Criminals are known to have less resistance to feelings of remorse and right/wrong. Due to the over population in our prisons there is also not proper implementation of punishment for the crimes committed. Rape cases are often overseen and this allows the perpetrator to go back on the street where similar crimes continue if not escalate to murder and other more serious crimes. Unfortunately we don’t hear of 80 percent of the children raped and murdered in rural communities as it simply happens so often. The case of Cape Town student Uyinene Mrwetyana made headlines but quite often there are more heart-breaking cases that get far less attention.
What sort of assistance does Women4Women offer to women and children affected by gender based violence?
Women4Women is an empowerment through education organization and we communicate to young girls that their current situation is not their only hope. We offer life skills education to ensure women are not in a position where they are compromised by not getting involved with the wrong crowd and basic skills to get themselves out of a poverty destined future and also on standing their ground, saying “NO” and learning to speak up for themselves.
From your experience working with women, what would you say are some of the main issues affecting women and children in the country today?
Access to basic needs such as sanitary pads is a huge issue and this keeps girl children out of school. Sexual abuse is a primary concern and the rate of sexual violence in South Africa is among the highest in the world
How do you think issues of gender based violence can be effectively addressed at government level, individual, and society level?
Government needs to put strict punishment in place with follow through and convictions; this is the only way. Secondary education and changing the culture of men in South Africa will go a long way to combat gender based violence. The only way this can be achieved is by other men condemning these actions and also speaking out for women’s rights.
As Women 4 Women, what’s your advice to women and children facing abuse and how can they protect themselves?
I wish that we will at some point get to a place where women and children do not have to seek to protect themselves but that they will be protected by men as they should be but this is long from being where it should be. The only way is to be vigilant and to report incidents but again, in the case of Uyinene and most other women, we are powerless against gender based violence.
You are based in Cape Town, how can people in other parts of the country access your services?
Yes, our offices are in Cape Town but we have empowerment workshops throughout South Africa. For more information about our work, people can visit: www.women4women.co.za. We are involved in empowering and uplifting the women in our communities. We strive to narrow the gap of inequality and build a better tomorrow for the woman of Africa. Amongst our objectives, we lobby government, public and private institutions to raise funds, to facilitate, assist, initiate, fund or participate in projects and programs that economically uplift women in various communities so that they sustain themselves without relying on others.