Feminism Is events at the Open Book Festival 2018


This year’s Open Book Festival in Cape Town has, as usual, an amazing line up of writers and public intellectuals coming together to talk about literature, politics, and many other things. The festival takes place from 5 – 9 September in Cape Town.

This year the Open Book Festival team has given amazing support to Feminism Is, and has five events scheduled around the book, as well as many others with a feminist focus.

5 September
20.00 – 21.00 Feminism Is: Pumla Gqola, Dela Gwala and Thembekile Mahlaba explore their journeys to feminism and answer FAQs in the company of Sara-Jayne King Fugard Studio


6 September
16.00 – 17.30 Feminism Is: Listening Room: We invite all persons of trans experience and/or those who identify as women/womxn to share personal experiences that shape their feminist identities in a safe and respectful space. Please keep contributions to a maximum of 5 minutes to allow as many voices to be heard as possible. Hosted by Joy Watson with contributions from Janine Adams, Kit Beukes, Michelle Hattingh and Ming-Cheau Lin and Tshepiso Mashinini. Fugard Studio


7 September
14.00 – 15.00 Feminism Is: Body Politics: Anna Dahlqvist, Melanie Judge and Tlaleng Mofokeng speak to Joy Watson about taking control in the context of patriarchy Fugard Theatre


7 September
18.00 – 19.00 Feminism Is: Talking Feminism: B Camminga, Helen Moffett and Tlaleng Mofokeng explore divisions and how they can stand in the way of feminist conversations in the company of Yaliwe Clarke Fugard Theatre


9 September
12.00 – 13.00 Feminism Is: Reflections: Jen Thorpe wraps up the series of ‘Feminism Is’ events and asks Pumla Gqola, Haji Mohamed Dawjee and Nwabisa Mda to share their thoughts on SA feminism today Fugard Theatre


Check out the full programme here for more details on other amazing feminist events.


Keeping women “safe” can be dangerous

Joy Watson
Joy Watson

by Joy Watson


Rape stats not improving, court stats even worse

The recently released crime statistics indicate a slight drop in the number of reported cases of sexual offences, from 66 387 in 2012/13 to 62 649 in 2013/14. Over the course of the past few years, the trend has been to drop, then increase again and then drop again at different points in time. In 2004/05, for example, there were 69 117 reported cases. By 2007/08, this had dropped to 63 818. In 2008/09, it increased again to 70 514, dropped to 64 514 in 2011/12 and then increased to 66 387 in 2012/13.

The pattern that emerges is not one of a steady decline as a result of a coherent, targeted strategy to eradicate sexual offences. Equally concerning, is the fact a small fraction of the total number of reported cases eventually go to court. In 2007/08, 6.8% of the total number of sexual offences went to court. Of the total number of cases reported to the police, 4.5% resulted in convictions. This improved marginally in 2008/09, when 7.5% of the total cases reported went to court and 5% of the total cases reported resulted in convictions. For the next two years, there was no reporting on the related statistics. In 2011/12, there was a marginal improvement with 10.7% of the total number of reported cases going to court and 6.97% of the total cases reported resulted in convictions. The subliminal message is abundantly clear – a rapist has to be extremely unlucky to get convicted.

The reasons for the vast majority of sexual offences cases not going to court varies. Some cases are eventually withdrawn by the victim, largely as a result of secondary victimisation in the criminal justice system. In other instances, the National Prosecuting Authority will drop a case if it seems as if though there is not enough evidence to support it. This is a contentious matter as forensic evidence is an important part of deciding whether or not a case can potentially be won in court.  Yet, there are significant delays in securing forensic evidence and even where it is secured, the accused can argue that sex was consensual.

We need new strategies

The fact that there is no coherent, inter-departmental strategy on the part of the state to deal with rape is one of the main reasons why we see no real improvement in addressing the issue of rape.

Much of the state and media discourse in this regard has focused on the notion of protectionism, namely, that women need to be kept safe from harm and navigate their way cautiously in public spaces, particularly at night. Embedded within this narrative of danger is the underlying view that “bad” women ask for trouble, and that women who conform to the tacit rules of how to dress, where to walk, when to be out etc., will be “safe”. Restrictions on women’s mobility are therefore sanctioned by rationalizing that it is in the interest of their safety.

Yet, rape has confounded this myth. Even “good” women who conform to the rules have been raped and the disproportionate focus on the danger to women in public spaces appears to ignore the reality that women seem to face more violence in private rather than public spaces.

Furthermore, the language of protection and safety is couched within a problematic framework of concern for women’s sexual virtue. It obliterates the fact that the everyday acts of violence such as catcalls and comments directed at women on the streets are linked to more brutal forms of violence such as rape. These daily, repetitive acts of intrusion and harassment which women are expected to take in their stride, creates the kind of social context where more brutal forms of harassment can take place.

In the longer term, the better strategy is for women to enhance their claim to public spaces as notions of protectionism and keeping women safe ultimately limit life choices and restrict mobility. This in itself can be seen as a form of violence. In the process of doing this, violence is something that needs to be contended with and addressed at its roots, that of structural social inequity. This will require that we think differently about violence against women – placing it not in opposition to risk and pleasure, but alongside them and understanding what these terms mean in their own right and when connected to each other.



Joy Watson

The National Gender Machinery: A failed enterprise?

Joy Watson
Joy Watson

By Joy Watson

It has been 20 years since the transition to democratic governance. In reflecting on progress made, the question of the contribution made by the National Gender Machinery (NGM) becomes an important one. The idea of a powerful set of institutional structures charged with monitoring gender equity was fought for by the Women’s National Coalition at the time of the transition to democratic governance. The thinking had been that these structures would be located at sites of power and influence in both the executive and legislature and that an independent statutory body in the form of the Commission for Gender Equality would be set up as a watchdog. The NGM was seen as holding great promise and was meant to be a bastion of women’s rights and an important conduit through which women could articulate their policy concerns and issues. Initially, all the structures of the gender machinery appeared to take their role seriously and embarked upon extensive public consultation sessions to inform their areas of activity. Somewhere along the line, however, and for a number of complex reasons, this shifted somewhat and the hope invested in the NGM reconfigured to the point where it was described as being fraught with structural problems, with power dispersed unevenly, broad and overlapping mandates and generally being in a state of disarray.[i]  There have been times when the NGM has been demobilised by internal dissent and disillusionment to the point of reaching a state of virtual crisis.

At a regional level, most countries on the African continent have put in place structural mechanisms for the advancement of gender equity. Forty-three states report that they have national policies on gender. This response by African states is meant to be indicative of a commitment to putting gender on the national agenda. They key attendant problem in giving effect to this commitment has been the inherent patriarchal nature of states on the continent and in fact, across the globe. Mama (2004)[ii] describes the approach on the continent as being a very state-centred one to feminist strategy; aimed at buttressing women against the abusive excesses of both imperial and traditional constructions of women.

It would, however, not be fair to argue that the NGM in South Africa and elsewhere has not yielded some successes in promoting women’s rights. Feminist literature e.g. Gouws (2008)[iii] and Hassim (2006)[iv] shows that there have been moments when the state has been an important site for feminist incursion into policy-making. Despite the contestation about the NGM and its uneven successes, it has, to some extent, created opportunities for the participation of women. There have, in the past, been some significant achievements in terms of legislative and policy reform that can be associated with the NGM. For example, the Joint Monitoring Committee on the Improvement of the Quality of Life and Status of Women in the early years following its inception, was instrumental in the conceptualisation of key pieces of legislation that promote women’s rights such as the Domestic Violence Act (Act No 116 of 1998) and the Maintenance Act (Act No 99 of 1998). The Portfolio Committee on Women, Children and Persons with Disabilities has a track record in trying to monitor the implementation of the Domestic Violence Act and in trying to address problems in this regard. The CGE has also been known to be active in legislative and policy reform and has, together with civil society organisations such as the Gender Advocacy Project (GAP), played a critical role in the 50/50 campaign, a campaign aimed at increasing the representation of women in public office. The former Office on the Status of Women (OSW) engineered the drafting of the National Policy Framework for Women’s Empowerment and notwithstanding the fact that the policy has not been effectively implemented; it envisioned a situation where a gendered analysis was incorporated into the work of all Government departments, something that unfortunately never quite saw the light of day.

As much as there has been some achievements in influencing the policy agenda, the ability of the NGM and state feminism in general to subvert existing power relations has been questionable. The NGM has, unfortunately, not managed to take on the adverse role of patriarchy and religion and there has been significant bureaucratic resistance to the equitable integration of women into the development of public policy. In addition, it has been argued that the South African NGM, as is the case with such machineries worldwide, is elite driven, under-resourced and dependant to a high degree on donor funding. It has also been argued that gender mainstreaming expertise in the state is poorly developed. As a consequence, many of the gains made in relation to gender equality are in those areas where public policy addresses women directly as a category, in areas such as maternal health, termination of pregnancy, violence against women etc. The aspects of public policy where the relationship between men and women need to be addressed, such as the patterns of customary law and land ownership, have been harder to take on. The inclusion of women in the formal institutions of the state has not therefore led to the redistribution of resources and power in ways that change the structural forces on which women’s oppression rests. The reasons for this are complex and have their roots in the tense relationship between feminism and the state’s attempts to take on “gender” through bureaucratic tickbox exercises such as holding events to celebrate Women’s Day. There is therefore no guarantee that having structures such as the NGM can lead to real and meaningful changes in subverting patriarchy and transforming women’s lives.

At a recent dialogue hosted by the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER)[v], the question emerged as to whether or not the NGM has become a failed enterprise. At different points in its history, each of its related structures reached a point of stalemate – such as in 2006 when the CGE commissioners resigned as a result of internal conflict, in 2007 the OSW was left with no staff and when Pregs Govender resigned as Chairperson of the Joint Monitoring Committee on the Improvement of the Quality of Life and Status of Women in 2002. The Ministry of Women, Children and People with Disabilities seemed unable to both develop a clear programme of action and to deliver on the targets it set for itself over the course of the last 5 years, an issue consistently raised in its annual report by the Auditor General. In some ways, the NGM has been set up for failure in that they have not been sites of real power and have been hamstrung by serious resource constraints. One view to emerge at the WISER dialogue was that there has been a lack of co-ordination in the NGM, that the different structures have been so preoccupied by internal conflict and monitoring each other, that they have not had their eye on the ball – the collective monitoring of the state. The critical question for feminists at this point it to consider whether or not it is worth reinvesting energy in the NGM to resurrect and capacitate it or whether it has become a huge white elephant that, after 20 years, has not yielded much. This debate is important to devising strategy for pursuing feminist intervention in the state.


[i] Gouws A, 2006 The State of the National Gender Machinery: Structural Problems and Personalised Politics in Buhlungu et al (eds) State of the Nation South Africa 2005-2006

[ii] Mama A 2002 “Demythologising Gender in Development: Feminist Studies in African Contexts” in IDS Bulletin, Volume 35, Issue 4.

[iii] Gouws 2008 “Obstacles for Women in Leadership Positions: The Case of South Africa” in Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Volume 34, No 1.

[iv] Hassim 2006 Women’s Organisations and Democracy Contesting Authority in South Africa, University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, Scottsville.

[v] Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research, Dialogue on the National Gender Machinery, 6 August 2014

Joy Watson

Dying for Love: Sex, Blood and Valentine’s Day

Joy Watson
Joy Watson

By Joy Watson

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.

Joy Watson

Counting the Costs – The long term costs of not adequately financing shelter services

Joy Watson
Joy Watson

By Joy Watson

Jennifer was 18 years old when she married Chris. Soon after their marriage, he began to beat her and verbally and emotionally abuse her.  One night, in a drunken rage, Chris woke their sons, aged 12 and 13, at 3am and ordered them to light a fire for a braai. It was a bitterly cold night and the boys sat shivering, trying to light the fire while Jennifer tried to lull her husband back to sleep by gently stroking his head. Eventually, he fell asleep but awoke after an hour and started shouting at the boys to get up and start the fire again. In a rage, he turned on Jennifer and started hitting her.   Jennifer’s eldest son grabbed a knife and shouted at his father “Tonight I am going to kill you and I don’t care if I go to jail for it!” Jennifer knew that her turning point had come. She would not allow her son to rot in jail for punishing his father for years of sustained abuse. Taking the boys, she fled down the road in a see-through nightdress. She sought refuge at a shelter that night. Over the course of the next 3 months she received counselling to work through the violence she had been subjected to, found employment and left Chris for good. Through the interventions offered by a shelter, she was able to turn her life around and begin the long process of healing the scars of unspeakable violence and trauma.

Jennifer’s story is one facing many women. In the period September 2010 – December 2010, SAPS reported an estimated 35 495 cases of domestic violence to Parliament. Given the under-reporting in this regard, this figure is estimated to be far higher. Shelter services fall under the ambit of the Government’s Victim Empowerment Programme (VEP), a key component of the crime prevention strategy. The VEP’s policy vision is to provide adequate service delivery interventions to support victims of violent crime. Yet in practice this is often far from the case. The Heinrich Boll Foundation and Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre, through a project funded by the European Union, released in this week the findings of a study conducted at 3 shelters for victims of domestic violence in the Western Cape, St Annes; the Saartjie Baartman Centre for Women and Children;  and Sisters Incorporated.

The research found that the Western Cape Department of Social Development provided a subsidy of just under R 30 per day for each woman and each child that accompanies his or her mother to the shelter. This amount has since increased to about R33 per woman. The allocation of funds to shelters is dismal, even prisoners receive more than this with the Department of Correctional Services allocating an amount of R313 per prisoner per day. This seriously calls into question the priority accorded to victims of gender-based violence.

Most women who come to the shelters are poor with no source of income, with no place else to go and often bringing very young children with them. The shelters need to cater to the practical needs of these women and children. This includes, amongst others, clothes, toiletries, food, health care and counselling and transport. The Department of Social Development in the Western Cape allocates a mere 1% of its total budget of R1.3 billion to the Victim Empowerment Programme. In 2011/2012, the Department had set a target of 3091 women and children accessing VEP shelter services. In actual fact, an estimated 5 860 people made use of the shelters during this time, almost double what was envisaged.

In the 2011/2012 financial year, St Anne’s received a total of R451 642 in government funding, a mere 48 % of its operating expenses. Sisters Incorporated received R 285 600, less than a third of its operating costs, while the Saartjie Baartman Centre (SBC) ran at a deficit of R148 089. The SBC had reached a point of being in dire financial straits and had to retrench staff in order to cut costs. Yet these shelters play a critical role in keeping many women and children safe from violence and are instrumental to getting them to a point of healing.

The study found that many of the women coming into shelters suffer from serious ailments such as depression, psychiatric conditions, HIV/AIDS and substance abuse. The long-term costs of not providing shelter services are far greater than allocating the estimated R114 per woman per day for adequate service provision. Violence has far-reaching ramifications, including an economic cost. The victims of violence suffer a myriad of health-related consequences and this, in turn, impacts on their lives in many ways, one of which is their ability to be at work on a regular basis and in a frame of mind where they are able to be productive.  Shelters offer so much more than a safe place for women and their children to stay. Many offer services such as crèches and children’s projects, counselling and group work, legal advice, opportunities for training in both life skills and in helping women find employment. The study in fact shows that many women who leave shelters have been assisted by shelters to enter into the economy, thereby creating a source of income.

In 2009, following public hearings on domestic violence, the national Department of Social Development made a commitment to setting up two shelters annually per province over a period of 5 years. It indicated that this was dependent on funding being available. No new shelters had been built during the time-frame of the research. Currently, many shelters are in funding crisis and the threat of closure is always a real one. Most shelters have had to work exceptionally hard and resort to extraordinary measures to make ends meet. Funding constraints negatively impact on service provision and one example of this is the limitations in offering counselling to children who are victims of domestic violence.

Ultimately, the reassessment of the support provided to shelters is a human rights issue. It is what is owed to women and children who bear the brunt of violence in the sanctity of their homes. It is time that we start counting the real, long term costs of not providing adequate support and assistance to victims of domestic violence and the consequences of living in an endless cycle of horror and torment.

Download the full report here