BLOG: Gender-Based Violence: Emptying the Meaning of Peace and Democracy

Sunday, December 5, 2010 - 19:00
Southern Africa
Southern Africa
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
General Women, Peace and Security
Human Rights
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence
Initiative Type: 
Online Dialogues & Blogs

This year 2010 marks the celebration of 15 years of the implementation of the Beijing Platform of Action; 10 years since the landmark UN Security Council Resolution 1325 and 20 years of the global campaign for 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence. Despite women's progress on the political front and their centrally placing structural and physical violence against women in the public sphere, the insecurity of women has escalated. All statistics show that we are bedeviled by a more insidious oppression that manifests itself in the home and pervades our society: Gender-based violence is the new battlefront!

The theme for this year's 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence, hosted annually between the 25 November and 10 December, is Structures of Violence: Defining the Intersections of Militarism and Violence Against Women. This theme recognises how the ideology of militarism permeates the way in which social relations in our societies are enacted with concomitant material, institutional, cultural and psychological effects.

Militarism is an ideology that operates on the logic of domination/control/containment and the dualism of friends and enemies. It privileges violence as an acceptable way of settling disputes. Its modus operandi is premised on fear. Militarism shapes a particular masculinity in which men are expected to be strong, assertive, in charge – it creates ‘warrior-citizens' and encourages the predatory behaviour that characterises relations when one gender is constructed as strong and the other as weak and vulnerable. The Centre for Women's Global Leadership notes that “Militarism neither ends nor begins in warzones, nor does it confine itself to the public sphere.”

The Reproductive Health Response in Crisis Consortium (RHRC) defines gender-based violence (GBV) as “an umbrella term for any harm that is perpetrated against a person's will that is the result of power imbalances that exploit distinctions between males and females. Violence may be physical, sexual, psychological, economic or socio-cultural.” The RHRC report (2007) further notes that:

* At least one in three of the world's female population has been physically or sexually abused
* World-wide, it has been estimated that violence against women is as serious a cause of death and incapacity among women of reproductive age as cancer, and a greater cause of ill-health than traffic accidents and malaria combined
* Nearly 50% of sexual assaults world-wide are against girls fifteen years or younger
* More than 2 million girls a year are genitally mutilated

In conflict zones, rape is a common occurrence serving as a tactic of war, a reward of war, and often, too, as a male bonding mechanism. In places like the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) women's bodies have become part of the spoils in the plundering of the resources of the society. But we do not need to regurgitate the familiar examples of places like Darfur and the DRC. We can illustrate that the bane of gender-based violence is commonplace in both conflict and post-conflict zones, democratic and undemocratic spaces and gender-friendly and unfriendly countries – it defies all these dualisms. South Africa is illustrative of this conundrum.

South Africa has made enormous strides in terms of gender equality, and has become the post-conflict poster child. The country has 45% of women in Parliament, 24% women in the defense sector and 21% in the police.. Notwithstanding this progress, the rates of violence against women and children are frightening. The 2009/2010 crime statistics released by the South African Police Services (SAPS) reported 68 332 cases of sexual offences (but this new category lumps all sexual offences together, i.e. rape, prostitution, etc). Although there seems to be a slight decline in the reported figures for sexual related violence for 2009/2010, these crimes are known to be seriously under-reported.

In the submission by Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre and the Ceasefire Campaign to the Portfolio Committee and Select Committee on Women, Youth Children and People with Disabilities on firearms and the Domestic Violence Act (October 2009), they highlighted the concerning international trend that it is predominantly intimate partners that engage in the violence.

A docket audit of murder cases revealed that domestic-related issues were the single most common cause associated with the murder of females and accounted for almost 30% of all female victims. The other category of circumstances that accounted for more female than male victims stemmed from jealousy and/or love triangles. Thus 41.6% of female murder victims died in incidents related to either domestic violence or situations linked to jealousy or love triangles, whereas only 7% of male victims were murdered in similar circumstances.

Most disconcertingly, too, is that children are also the victims of gender based violence. Sexual offences are the most prevalent crime against children in South Africa. Out of the 27 417 cases of sexual offences against children, 60,0% were committed against children below the age of 15 years and 29,4% of these sexual offences involved children aged 0 – 10 years (Rape Survivor Update 2010). It is for this reason that the 16 Days of Activism campaign in South Africa includes a focus on children with the message “Don't Look Away.”

If the official statistics are cause for alarm, then revelations in recent studies on gender-based violence conducted in communities in South Africa show that the problem has reached crisis proportions and that violence, especially that against women and children, is embedded in the reality of our day-to-day lives. In a recently released study of Gauteng conducted by Gender Links and the South African Medical Research Council, titled The War @ Home, findings revealed that “over half of the women in Gauteng (51.2%) have experienced some form of violence (emotional, physical or sexual) in their lifetime and 78.3% of men in the province admit perpetrating some form of violence against women.” Yet, the report further notes, “violence against women is still regarded as a private affair with only 3.9% of women interviewed reporting this crime to the police. One in 13 women reported non-partner rape and overall only one in 25 rapes had been reported to the police.” A study by the People Against Women Abuse (POWA) and the Medical Research Council (March 2010) conducted in the other provinces revealed similar unsettling findings.

Well-known South African and former World Bank managing director Mamphela Ramphele in Sunday Times article (28/11/2010) titled Tackle the monster in our midst for our nation's sake succinctly identifies the problem when she states

I would like to propose that we acknowledge that we have a national crisis relating to the moral and ethical foundations of our society. And sadly, the rot permeates society at all levels, in a complex way. We have a fantastic human rights constitution that is undermined on a daily basis across the society by social practices that reflect our authoritarian cultural orientation. This cultural orientation plays out in our homes, in our schools, in our communities, in our workplaces and in the wider society. We are not living up to the precepts of the human rights principles in our constitution.

Militarism, which is a manifestation of patriarchy, may afford us explanations of why after all the interventions to create gender equality and combat gender based violence we are not making any headway. A focus on militarism enables us to review the cultures and structures that normalise violence in all spheres of our society. It shifts our discourse and practices back to the concept of patriarchy (a concept that has been silenced and replaced by the more palatable discourse of gender mainstreaming). For if we leave the power relations between men and women unexamined, the gender constructions unexamined and thus the overarching culture unexamined, we may get it right to change the representation of women in our public institutions, but the everyday experiences of women that situate them as unequal and implicitly condone violence against women will continue. We cannot meaningfully speak of peace when half of the world's population, women, live in fear. We cannot meaningfully talk of democracy, if it has not cascaded into the confines of the practices in the home.