Trevor Davies
Trevor Davies

16 Days of Activism — we need to be uncomfortable

I always get angry during the 16 Days campaign, it’s comfortable to be angry, to structure my protest and join with thousands of others in writing, meeting and talking about the problem. People just like me, who are passionate, concerned and vocal.

This year my anger is turning inward and outward. Inward because I recognise that my voice is failing to have any impact at all in my advocacy for a better and safer world for my daughters and outward at our gender movements that seem caught in the same old rhetoric. I sympathised with gender activist Nomboniso Gasa who in her profile by Percy Zvomuya in the Mail & Guardian proclaimed, “I have got to the point where I feel I am repeating myself”. Like Gasa I wonder at the impact of my activism on gender-based violence when we seem to have all the laws in place but the horrific attacks on women and children continue to rise with impunity.

We are spending too much time and effort talking to the already converted. Our conversations are all in the mirror. It’s time to make ourselves deliberately uncomfortable and open ourselves up to new thinking about how we are manifestly failing in our mission, given the empirical evidence of rising gender-based violence and how we can change tack and bring some new thinking to the table.

This work remains seriously underfunded, supporting victims is often small-scale, uncoordinated and under the radar. Attitudes towards gender-based violence in many local communities remain deeply troubling and unchallenged by our gender movement and our constitutional, human-rights work.

There is a powerful, persistent and malignant idea still out there in many communities that this violence is a marginal problem, confined to a small number of aberrant men. That it is just the problem that sometimes men “take it too far”. The fact that according to the Medical Research Council over a thousand women a year are killed by an intimate partner in South Africa and that Gender Links research shows that 51% of women resident in Gauteng experience some form of sexual abuse or assault in their lifetime is just statistical evidence that something is seriously and deeply wrong in our attitudes towards gender-based violence.

As gender activists we’ve let this happen to some extent. We’ve compartmentalised the problem, labelled it and boxed it into a marketable commodity for funding proposals to donors and governments. Sought support for our work from only a narrow constituency of benevolent “gender” backstoppers and been content not to think outside of the box.

We’ve ghettoised this as a “women’s issue” and therefore been content to leave the leadership of the challenge to the women’s movement believing in the fallacy that it is a women’s problem. We’ve allocated just enough resources to women’s organisations to manage the dissent and pick up some of the pieces. We’ve patronised and marginalised the small number of men and men’s organisations who’ve taken up the challenge to gender-based violence, drip-feeding their work and just about keeping it on life support.

Riane Ensler has written: “For most of recorded history, parental violence against children and men’s violence against wives was explicitly or implicitly condoned. Those who had the power to prevent and/or punish this violence through religion, law, or custom, openly or tacitly approved it … the reason violence against women and children is finally out in the open is that activists have brought it to global attention.”

I agree with her statement. The women’s movement has done a sterling job in making this a real issue but I feel that now we all need to work far harder at doing something about it. This cannot just be the task of the women’s movement. They need the whole of society to come on board.

The first sea change that needs to happen is that we start to view gender-based violence as a men’s problem, which women suffer from. Turf wars over gender funding have to stop.

The resistance of the women’s movement to seeing resources put into work with men and boys has to be dealt with. They need assurances that such funding will not be a “diversion” of resources away from valuable work with women victims and survivors and advocacy that keeps the issue in national attention. Those who work with men and boys need to know that their work is valued and supported, that they can take it to scale.

An alliance of 29 leading South African NGOs including Powa, Cosatu, Rape Crisis and others has called for a commission of inquiry into gender-based violence recognising that combatting this now needs action on a huge scale — comparable to the efforts that were put into fighting HIV and Aids by the government. This needs to happen urgently and such a commission needs to interrogate the whole of society as to why the scourge of gender-based violence is so virulently entrenched. The alliance is asking for R10 billion to be put up by government to support the work of the inquiry. Big bucks but in 2012 the auditor general reported that R30 billion in government spending had been regarded as “irregular, wasteful and fruitless expenditure”.

The statistics are appalling, the daily news reports are horrifying and years of neglect by the government to concerted action has led us to a deeply uncomfortable and saddening paradigm on gender-based violence.

Powerful ideas get transmitted much in the same way that genes do — only we call these memes. Once embedded in our minds they become powerfully entrenched. We need a new meme on gender-based violence that will transmit itself quickly and powerfully into all our minds and deep down into our communities.