Inertia in tackling gender-based violence vexing

Image: Thuli Dlamini

The start of Women's Month in SA this year was refreshingly different from other years, as women took to the streets in #TheTotalShutdown protests.

The marches reminded South Africans of women's protests during the country's transition period between 1992 and 1994. At the time women were demanding to be included in the negotiation process and in designing the architecture of the new democracy.

In the decade that followed, activism around women's issues became limited to campaigns that were smaller in scope, such as the Shukumisa Campaign that engaged the state around the Sexual Offences Act, or the One in Nine Campaign, which proclaimed that only one in nine rapes were reported.

Five years ago the country was shocked into action after the brutal murder of Anene Booysen. This campaign was short-lived, but it emphasised the need for state intervention that did not happen.

Three years later, in 2016, students at universities across the country took protests against gender-based violence to the streets.

The #EndRapeCulture protests were, in my view, South Africa's #MeToo moment - even before #MeToo happened globally.

The protests exposed the insidious nature of sexual violence, men's entitlement and women living in constant fear of being raped or sexually brutalised. It was a resistance against the normalisation of gender- based violence.

Then the issue once again fell away from public attention - until recently, when women began mobilising for #TheTotalShutdown protests. This was the first time activism on a national level focused on gender-based violence, not only against women but also against members of the LGBTIQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and questioning) communities. This activism was long overdue.

#TheTotalShutdown has 24 demands in its memorandum, including a review of past national action plans on gender-based violence and the development of a new national action plan.

Women have been asking for a great deal of what's on the list for more than a decade. So why has there been no action?

There's clearly a lack of political will to deal with sexual violence. This starts with state agencies such as the police that often trivialise women's reports of rape, are quite lethargic to investigate rape and often are complicit in rape themselves. This needs to change.

The large numbers of women who took part in #TheTotalShutdown marches showed that women are not only victims. They also have agency. Their decision not to allow men to participate was so that women could take a stand without men taking charge. Men can show solidarity through working with other men, and by challenging men involved in violence.

#TheTotalShutdown protesters demand 365 days of action against gender- based violence. But more powerful ways of keeping government to account must be found. Violence should be dealt with not only once it has happened but should also be prevented.

*Gouws is professor of political science and South African Research Chairs Initiative chair in gender politics at Stellenbosch University

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