Two months ago I was asked what gender-based peace would look like in the South African context, and in response I muttered something about ending gendered violence. This seemingly simple and innocuous question flustered me. For as long as I have dealt with gender issues, as a gendered being, I have not given gender peace sufficient thought. When we speak of gender we are quick to criticise the discriminatory treatment of the different genders, or lament how patriarchy determines our lives in frequently fatal ways. We become so busy putting down patriarchy that we allow ourselves little time to envision a post-patriarchal world sustained by peace.
As gender activists, we frequently ask ourselves how we can create safer spaces for all gender identities in various settings. We wonder how we can challenge and overthrow an inherently violent system that oppresses and inhibits human beings from realising their full humanity. We consistently respond to the myriad of gender crises that pop up, and avidly try to galvanise public outrage and mobilise it for positive change. Ultimately we become consumed by the human rights atrocities and neglect to ponder what gender peace would look like should we topple oppressive structures. If peace is the objective, why have we given so little thought to what form it would take?
It is difficult to imagine positive peace between genders when violent oppression and exploitation remains commonplace in South Africa. Violence – physical, structural, and symbolic – in the country is deeply entrenched in its public institutions, and cultural and religious structures. It is supported by and sustained through the patriarchal system that relegates multi-faceted beings into dichotomised zones, and prescribes how they should live and be, commonly referred to as the patriarchal script.
Renowned feminist philosopher, bell hooks, calls patriarchy “the single most life-threatening social disease assaulting the body and spirit in our nation.” Predating the democratic dispensation of 1994, South Africa’s history is steeped in hypermasculine violence. The Slave Lodge in Cape Town in part served as the unofficial brothel where men could trade (in power) to demand gratification at damaging costs to women. For approximately two centuries, the raping and murdering of women went largely unacknowledged and unpunished. Following the dispensation of democracy in 1994 and the significant gains made for women’s liberation, South Africa remains a ‘man’s country’. Sonke Gender Justice reported that femicide in South Africa is five times the global rate, and its levels of violence resemble that of a country in civil war.
Each day, we are bombarded with news that centres the severest manifestations of gender-based violence, and paints the picture of a dystopian society devoid of moral conscience. Karabo Mokoena’s ordeal was one in a plethora of similar horror stories that South Africans were confronted with, and sparked a national conversation around the creation of a national strategic plan against gender-based violence. On 1 June 2017, Members of Parliament (MP) held a debate on violence against women in a near-empty National Assembly. Only eleven Cabinet ministers and deputies were present. Current Police Minister, Fikile Mbalula, declared the violence a matter of national security, and went as far as to write an encouraging article filled with promises and hopeful plans following the debate. However, it is difficult to take seriously government’s response to gendered violence when it is members of government who commit acts of abuse, or allow perpetrators to escape without legal consequence.
The African continent has some of the highest levels of gender-based violence in the world. A collaborative report between the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Medical Research Council revealed that approximately 45,6% of women in Africa experienced physical and sexual violence, compared to 35% globally. While most remedial efforts at addressing gender-based violence take form in the educating and economic empowering of women so as to prevent, protect and defend themselves from and against violence, scant attention and effort has been given to the complete breaking down of the patriarchal system. While we have grown astute in tracking and addressing violence as it relates specifically to political and economic climates, there is reluctance across society to interrogate patriarchy as the basis of human interaction. We battle to acknowledge that a socio-political order based on male hegemony through the denigration of other genders is violent and breeds violence.
While all races suffer in some form under patriarchy, black women, are disproportionately affected and face daily threats and actual harm to their person on a scale that mirrors atrocities committed in times of civil war. For those African countries who are engaged in war, sexual and gender-based violence is not an anomaly, but an extreme manifestation and reflection of the already existing hierarchical gender order. To combat violence we need to confront the established patriarchal structures that permit violence. Efforts to do the aforementioned have often resulted in backlash in spaces where gender norms are entrenched. There is a need to acknowledge that violence against women happens because they are women.
We cannot attempt gender reconciliation without first addressing gender based violence. Much like we cannot reach that nirvana that is a post-racial society without first addressing the barriers that block our way. In light of femicide rates, in particular, is it, then, not premature to speak of gender- based peace? How appropriate is the term ‘gender-based peace’? If we establish peace while still subscribing to divisive social constructions, will that peace be sustainable? Perhaps we should, instead, begin to imagine a post-gender future in which previously gendered traits are accepted as a component of our multiplicity, rather than exclusive to masculine or feminine identifying people. Or do we need gender as a way to identify and distinguish ourselves? The answers do not come easy, but begins with the acknowledgement that we are at gender war because of an inherently violent socio-political order. Until then, efforts at addressing gender-based violence will be superficial and unsustainable. How do we dream of peace when war is all we are exposed to? SARepublish