Violence against women is the worst form of oppression

If we use Madiba’s haunting lament as a yardstick that “freedom cannot be achieved unless women have been emancipated from all forms of oppression”, then South African women, and for that matter women elsewhere, are far from free!

The world marks International Women’s Day on March 8 annually.

The difference this year is the Covid-19 pandemic which continues to ravage the world since its onset in early 2020.

That violence against women increased during the pandemic merely reinforces Madiba’s truism.

Violence against women is the worst form of oppression. It coalesces power, manipulation, coercion, control, fear, physical, emotional and mental harm into a weapon of destruction against women – a process nurtured on entrenched patriarchy, paternalism, entitlement and misogyny going back to time immemorial.

How appropriate that activists are devoting March as International Women’s Month (IWM). Not all men of course are violent. Just as not all women are non-violent.

South Africa has the dubious distinction of having three of the most pernicious social indicators in the world, all of which affect women disproportionately.

South Africa, says the IMF, suffers among the highest levels of inequality, making it the most economically unequal society in the world, 27 years after the onset of democracy.

According to the WHO, South Africa has the single largest prevalence of HIV in the world with 7.7 million afflicted, many of whom are women and young girls, often the victims of sexual violence including rape.

President Cyril Ramaphosa, speaking at Pretoria’s launch of the “Emergency Response Action Plan on Gender-based Violence and Femicide (GBVF)” in 2020, rued that “despite the provisions of our Constitution and our laws, South Africa has one of the world’s highest rates of gender-based violence”.

GBVF is endemic in every country and culture, harming millions of women and their families.

It is a problem of men and their attitudes to women. No amount of gender, religious and cultural apologia can mask this fact.

It starts at a young age – one in four young women (aged 15-24), says WHO, who have been in a relationship will have already experienced violence by an intimate partner by the time they reach their mid-twenties.

High levels of stigma and under-reporting of sexual abuse means the true figure is significantly higher.

Covid-19 has further increased women’s exposure to violence as a result of measures such as lockdowns and disruptions to vital support services.

No society can afford or tolerate the consequences and costs of GBVF – homicides, suicides, injuries, unintended pregnancies, induced abortions, STDs including HIV, mental illness, problem drinking, manifold health issues, and disruptive impact on children.

Every year marks a flurry of pious platitudes and rhetoric of aspiration on containing and minimising the preventable pandemic of gender-based violence. Progress in reality is painfully slow, under-resourced and obfuscated by dinosaurs – misogynists masquerading as men – in almost every sector of society.

According to the UN and WHO, globally about one in three (30%) of women worldwide have been subjected to either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime.

All areas of the world are affected… albeit Africa, Oceania and SE Asia have the highest prevalence.

This translates into a staggering estimated 736 million women that have suffered intimate partner violence, sexual violence from a non-partner, or both, at least once in their lives.

Almost one in four adolescent girls in a partnership have experienced physical and/or sexual violence from a partner or husband before their 19th birthday.

Women do not need UN definitions of what constitutes violence against them. Nor do they need to be told that it is preventable.

Millions of them experience it on a daily basis. The fact that it persists suggests a fundamental flaw in policy approach and messaging in an era of a pervasive social media – the socio-political status of women in society, education, sexualisation of women in marketing and the arts, role of pornography, alcohol and drugs.

How homocentric of President Ramaphosa in his message to the nation on Sunday marking Human Rights Day 2021 when he mentioned in passing: “We must become a society where women and children are free from violence, and where their rights are protected.” This during IWM when he has said nothing new on the progress (or regress) of dealing with GBVF.

Mr President, women are protected under the South African Constitution and laws. How do you reconcile the persistence of GBVF with the lack of urgency, resources and progress in your government’s response to GBVF? Without stronger political will and leadership it will continue!

The ANC this year celebrates the 150th anniversary of the birth of Charlotte Mannya Maxeke, the pioneering activist, the first black South African woman to obtain a science degree, a delegate to the ANC’s founding conference in 1912 and a founder of the Bantu Women’s League, a forerunner to the ANC Women’s League. It took another 31 years for women to be accepted as full members of the ANC in 1943. Ramaphosa could start by exorcising entrenched patriarchy and misogyny within ANC’s own ranks.

GBVF is a violation of the human rights of women and a crime against humanity. Millions of women continue to be brutalised and many wantonly murdered such as Sarah Everard recently in the UK, allegedly at the hands of a policeman. Perhaps it’s time to enshrine GBVF as a crime against humanity through an international convention.

The Heroes of Sharpeville, marking 25 years since the massacre, as Ramaphosa so invoked in his message, fought against apartheid and for human rights. Essentially, they fought against all forms of oppression.

Unfortunately, as Madiba alluded to, in South Africa one of the tragic stand-out forms of oppression remains gender-based violence! And for how long?

  • Parker is an economist and writer based in London.

OPINION: Mushtak Parker