14 February marks the anniversary of the death of Reeva Steenkamp at the hand of her sporting hero boyfriend, Oscar Pretorius. It is also Valentine’s Day, the day where across the globe, a billion dollar industry is fed in celebrating normative, and predominantly heterosexual, constructions of romantic love.
South Africa has one of the highest rates of reported rapes in the world. High levels of sexual and domestic violence have become an integral part of our social norms with almost a million contact crimes against women reported to the police over the course of the past few years. Recently, a 9 year old girl was raped and left for dead in Delft. Her attacker had the gall to laugh as he set her alight, boasting that she would not be able to identify him after. Given the low conviction rate for rape (6.97% of the total crimes reported), the message is very clear: rapists mostly do not get convicted and if you do, you can count yourself a very unlucky exception to the norm.
Yet for the victim, while the physical suffering of rape and other forms of gender-based violence may eventually dissipate with time, the psychological and emotional trauma will, in all likelihood, remain with her for the rest of her life. Once a human being has been subjected to torture by another, one’s sense of being safe in the world will never again be intact. The fact that the infliction of cruelty is a choice and that someone intentionally set out to hurt you, will forever change your sense of being secure.
Rape and domestic violence are a central ways in which power operates in a society. Many perpetrators of gender-based violence locate such violence within a twisted version of a romantic framework. Views such as “She wanted it, she asked for it and how could she not want sex when she was wearing such a short skirt?” are commonplace in the perpetrator’s narrative of abdicating responsibility for violence. Attempts are often made to construe the victim’s response as approving behaviour, translating forcible rape into romantic seduction, an account which not only frames cruelty, but enables it.
The challenge then becomes how to move the debate on gender-based violence from being one about women as victims and keeping them safe, to one that deals with the constructions of masculinity that makes such violence possible. Studies conducted by the Medical Research Council show that 27.6% of men interviewed in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu Natal and 37% of those interviewed in Gauteng, admitted to having raped. Yet many South Africans have become desensitized to the horror of rape and gender-based violence. It has become so much a part of the prevailing social norm that there seems to be a sense of sensory fatigue with the many stories that are told. This is a serious indictment on our society and it is time to reassess how we take a collective social stand to say “Hands Off Women’s Bodies!” Valentine’s Day, with its reinforcement of gendered roles within relationships, is an ideal time to begin to join such a social movement.
The One Billion Rising Against Sexual Violence or V-Day campaign which takes place on 14 February, is one opportunity for taking an activist stance. The campaign began in 2013 as a worldwide call to end violence against women and children. Based on the statistic that one out of every three women will be raped or beaten in their lifetime, the campaign is an attempt to get a billion people across the globe to form part of an activist movement to end gender-based violence. It comprises a form of protest or “risings” which take the form of art, dance, marches, flash mobs and story circles.
Some of the Cape Town based events on 14 February will include silent protests outside the Mitchells Plain, Bellville and Bishop Lavis courts. Women from the Cederburg, George, Worcester and the Klapmuts regions will congregate at the Cape Town Civic Centre and march to the Cape Town high court. With the theme of “The State of Justice for Gender Based Violence,” the protest will focus on demanding justice for victims. Other aspects of the campaign include the hosting of an interfaith discussion by the Claremont Main Rd Mosque, opportunities for men to come together and frame their responses as men and story telling circles for victims of gender-based violence. The campaign is one example of the potential power of spreading a message that we all have a role to play in questioning, confronting and subverting the social order that makes violence against women thrive.
South Africa is in a state of crisis insofar as violence against women and girls is concerned. We live in an innately violent context, so much so that our views on what constitutes force and violence have been somewhat affected. The more horrific the act of violence, the more likely we are to sit up and take notice. Sadly, we have become less responsive to psychological aggression and subtle intimidation and the day to day power interplays in relationships that create the social context where more brutal displays of violence become possible. Many of our men hold inherently violent attitudes towards sexuality. We feed the gendered myths of what it means to be men and women in ways that are potentially dangerous. Most worrying, we tend to abdicate responsibility for gender based-violence as a social issue that requires a response at a community and social level. When planning the roses, the red hearts, the champagne and the romantic love this Valentine’s, let’s spare a thought for those who have died in the name of love.