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Women as war zones

Very often when we think of war, we think machine guns and soldiers. We think demolished homes and buildings, even imagining the prisoners and survivors it leaves. That is what the media shows as war – the haunted looks in people’s eyes, clearly showing their fear and tortured souls. But war is much more than the image it brings to the eye. War is brutal and wounds not just physically and emotionally; it scars even the mind.

We believe South Africa not to be a country at war. There are no dead bodies. There are no soldiers forcefully entering homes. We are not walking the streets fearing gunshots and we certainly do not sit in our homes fearing drones.

But a look beyond the obvious tells a different story. We are a nation deeply in the midst of war – with women being the war zones. It is not homes that are entered forcefully, it is women’s bodies. It is not gunshots we live in fear of; we fear our partners, fathers, uncles, teachers and even the man on the street. This fear is justified by a 2010 Statistics SA finding that 38.4% of sexual offences victims were victimised by a known community member. For 22% of the sexual offence victims, the perpetrators were unknown community members and 15.8% were relatives. However in the year leading up to April 2012, it was found that 40% of all reported sexual offences were committed against children, meaning women also live in fear for their children.

It is estimated that a woman is killed by her male partner every six hours, giving South Africa the highest rate of death by domestic violence in the world. 

According to the World Health Organisation, 60 000 women and children in South Africa are victims of domestic violence every month – and those are just the cases that are reported. Chandre Gould, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, writes that “Research by Gender Links and the Medical Research Counci conducted in Gauteng found that although 51.2% of women had experienced some form of physical, sexual or psychological violence at some point, only 0.3% had reported cases of domestic violence to the police.” This in turn suggests that 60 000 per month is but the tip of the iceberg of the actual number of domestic violence cases in the country.

Women face regular assault, not only in the streets, but also in the very homes meant to be their sanctuaries. Earlier this year, Interpol found South Africa to be the world’s rape capital and yet it is believed that less than 1% of rape cases are reported to police. Women also deal with regular rape, “jackrolling” (leisure gang rape) and “corrective rape”. These atrocities, however, only make up a small number of the horrors faced by women daily in South Africa. This, coupled with prejudice, misogyny and the structural violence women endure as a result of poverty and socio-economic inequalities further deepen the abuse faced by South African women. Whether we are in the street, at church and even in our own homes, women face some kind of abuse and very little is being done to address it.

We need to realise that this is not ‘their’ story – it is OUR story. It is the story of every woman – our mothers, daughters, sisters, aunties, nieces and friends. It is the story of every Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) survivor and the story of the Namibian woman who was forcefully sterilised. It is the story of the women of Libya, Kenya, Egypt, Somalia and elsewhere – all united by the common thread of extreme deep hurt, physical pain and the kind of abuse no person should undergo. You see, the war is not unique to South Africa; it is a war that cuts across countries – taking place even in other countries not considered to be “war zones”.

Until we accept that we are at war, we will continue to be unable to comprehend the urgency needed to deal with the gross abuse and violation of women. We cannot continue to silently sit back and witness the abuse of our grandmothers, mothers, sisters, aunts, cousins and friends.