One On One

Q & A – Puseletso Mbhele

South Africa is currently marking 16 days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children. The campaign which runs from November 25 to December annually, is aimed at creating awareness on the dangers of gender based violence and what can be done to effectively address it. Recent crime statistics indicate that a woman is murdered every three hours in the country. The Weekly’s Martin Makoni spoke to social worker and criminologist Puseletso Mbhele who recently launched a campaign called #Icantbenext to teach women different self-defence tactics should they find themselves in danger. Makoni also asked Mbhele about some of the reasons why men seem to be increasingly getting more violent against women. Excerpts:

What is #Icantbenext all about and why did you find it necessary to start such a movement?

When I was working as an auxiliary social worker in rural Gauteng, I had several heartbreaking experiences from the cases I was handling. There was so much rape, child abuse, and domestic violence against women in the area that I worked. Most of the cases we referred to the police never got the light of day due to lack of ‘sufficient evidence’. I found this heartrending and it took a toll on me. Those women and children needed help but there was none, so I felt I had to do something about it. This prompted me to register my own company, Lifeshield Home Security Projects in 2015. I wanted to help those victims of abuse. I recently started the #ICantBeNext campaign where we offer free self-defence training and boot camps to local women and university students. Presently, we are only operating in Gauteng but we hope to spread to other parts of the country soon.

But by teaching women these self-defence mechanisms, are you not equipping them to be aggressive towards other people which could lead to more cases of violence, how is your training structured?

People think that self-defence is all about fighting back. That’s not necessarily the case. Self-defence is actually about being able to get away from bad situations and having the tools and awareness to keep safe. In our training, women are taught how to be aware of their surroundings at all times, places and things to avoid and how to conduct themselves when faced with danger. The training is actually about how to avoid violent situations and remain safe. Self-defence also teaches you how to run away from someone who is violating you. It’s not necessarily about proving how much power you have or how good you can fight. You have heard some men trying to justify their attacks on women saying they were inappropriately dressed, but with self-defence, dress-code doesn’t matter. You can still defend yourself no matter the situation.

What sort of defence mechanisms do you teach?

We cover different situations which women may find themselves in such as rape and how they can come out of that. We teach them how to conduct themselves, things that they can carry, like pepper-spray and basically how to walk on the streets. It’s important not to look down when walking, avoid using the phone and being attentive at all times. When you pay attention to your surroundings at all times, it can help you avoid danger. The way someone touches you or talks to you could give you a good indication of their intentions, so we teach women how to prepare themselves in such situations.

Given your background as a social worker, what have you found through your work, to be some of the reasons why men attack women, particularly with the level of violence and aggression we have witnessed in recent times?

When I spoke to different women, I think the issue of jealousy came up quite often. Most men in relationships become jealous when their partners go out alone. They want to know why she did it and who she was with, where the got the money from and so forth. Some would check the phone to see who the woman is chatting with and what they are talking about. In fact, the phone is actually a big problem in all this. They become edgy if a message comes in and it’s another man greeting her. It becomes a problem and they start fighting. Alcohol was another factor highlighted in the area that I was working in. The man would come home drunk and start fighting with the woman over a very small issue.

What about those men who attack women they don’t know, say they meet in a pub or on the street, what motivates that?

In the case of those pubs, at times the women are offered drinks by strangers who then make it their point that they want to leave with them later. The fact that the woman accepts the drinks, doesn’t necessarily mean they are interested in that man. Now, some men don’t take kindly to that, leading to fights when the woman says no to their advances. On the streets, women are usually taken advantage of because perpetrators find them physically weaker than them, and therefore an easy target for robbing or for sexually abusing.

We recently learnt of a female student who was stabbed 52 times in Limpopo Province and another one who was stabbed 25 times and burnt in the North West, what jealousy pushes one to such aggression and ruthlessness?

I could say it’s anger because some men feel they have lost that power to control women. They see themselves losing that power to women because most are now working and independent, thereby not relying on men for everything. At the same time, we have men who are sitting at home with no jobs and they are depressed. Some cannot take care of their families and others cannot even date. Seeing well accomplished women or just women in control of their lives, angers them. So, they try to find something that could entertain them, and that may be attacking those women. They have that anger in themselves.

But the two victims from Limpopo and the North West were both students still relying on their families for upkeep and they were attacked by equally young people, could it be jealousy, given that the victims didn’t have much of their own?

I would still point to the issue of anger. I think some men are just angry. It’s difficult to say why because the circumstances in the attacks differ from case to case. There might be need for a study into that. There might be something more to what we are seeing now. It’s important to understand why men are being so brutal towards women and how the situation can be addressed. It seems like men have lost their conscience. They don’t seem to feel guilty if they do something bad. It seems like anger has taken over their conscience. Normally, when you do something bad, there comes a time when you reflect and say, ‘I am not supposed to do this’ and you fix yourself or seek help. It’s something that needs to be understood in its proper context so that they can be assisted.

But what about the law, are you saying such men are not worried about breaking the law?

Several cases that I referred to the police as a social worker failed to proceed due to lack of evidence. It’s so easy to commit a crime in South Africa and get away with it because they will say there isn’t enough evidence. So, some people actually boast that they will go to court and nothing will happen to them. They will walk free.

So, these are people taking advantage of loopholes in the country’s laws, what do you think police should do in order to build water-tight cases before going to court?

I think police should receive more training on how to investigate cases of gender based violence, particularly rape. They need to know what to look for when someone reports a case of rape, how they should conduct themselves when dealing with a rape survivor, the medical procedures to be followed, how to prepare the docket, the investigation and ensure they have a solid case before going to court. I have had some situations where rape seemed normal to the survivors because they didn’t know what to do about it. Some were not sure how society would react and didn’t want to be viewed as simply trying to cause problems. So, the police should be well trained to assist those coming forward to report.

What happens to those who don’t report that they have been raped, how much does it affect them?

It affects them quite badly. It may take time, may be one year, but when it does, it really affects them. They will start thinking why the perpetrator took advantage of them, whether it was their fault or whether it’s because they are weak. Those unanswered questions could then lead to stress or depression. And when they try to report the case after a year, the police, because of their limited knowledge in rape matters, they may be told there is no case because there is no more evidence. Some survivors choose to remain quiet because they don’t want to ‘tarnish’ their image or reputation. They are worried that people might have seen them together with the perpetrator, thereby creating an impression that they were in a relationship and they don’t want to be asked questions. Such people need counselling so that they won’t live a life of regret.

How much would you attribute these attacks on women to gangsterism?

To be quite honest, most of these attacks are not linked to gangsterism. Cases of gangsterism are rife in schools and certain sections of the community where the youths are fighting to control certain territories. With rape, the person who rapes you is someone who is close to you. This could be your relative, a neighbour or a friend. It’s the people you are usually comfortable with who violate you. In most cases it’s people who know you and they take advantage of that relationship.