16 Days of Activism is insufficient and deeply problematic. It fails to change attitudes, to change practices and to address root causes of this societal scourge. Danielle Hoffmeester writes why she believes the campaign is nothing more than a cheap political campaign and why she expects South Africa will simply retreat into silence and silos once the campaign is over.
Each year on 25th November, the 10-day national campaign against violence, specifically as it affects women and children, rolls round. It is a campaign that I, as a gender activist, have never gotten excited about, or actively participated in, despite it being the one time out of an entire year that national focus is placed upon the plight of society’s most vulnerable. Like many others I think the campaign is government’s superficial and half-hearted attempt to address gender-based violence.
Why? Because a woman will be murdered, assaulted or raped, and a political figure tasked with protecting the most vulnerable will express both her grief and condemnation of the murdered person in one breath: Susan Shabangu’s description of Karabo Mokoena as ‘weak’ is an all too common utterance against abused women in South Africa, and the rest of the world.
16 Days is a poor political performance since government lacks the will and conviction to seriously halt gender-based violence when it employs men who manifest toxic forms of masculinity against women, and when it absolves other powerful political figures from the legal consequences that should follow physical assault.
I roll my eyes at 16 Days since I cannot forget how the African National Congress’s Women’s League actively defended the President of South Africa against rape allegations, and chose, instead, to hound, harass, and re-traumatise someone who should have been believed. No, I have not forgotten Kwezi. And I roll my eyes at 16 Days when I think back to the murders of Lerato Moloi, Courtney Pieters, Stascha Arendse, and countless others who were murdered in 2017 alone, and what little impact the previous 16 Days of Activism had on the attitudes and actions of South Africans; what little impact 16 Days of Activism will have in the future.
I imagine the multiple protests and marches that will take place within this time, and how each present organisation will try to expose the immorality of violence, and unanimously call for South African men to protect ‘their’ women. And I know that on 11th December South African citizens, civil society, and government will retreat into silence and silos, each satisfied with having done their bit to end gender-based violence.
The 16 Days of Activism is an international campaign that opposes violence against women and children – itself a narrow and problematic campaign description. It aims to raise awareness of the negative impact that violence and abuse have on women and children, and to rid society of abuse entirely and permanently.
According to the South African Parliamentary website, abuse against women is caused by their inferior position within the private and public sphere, and by men who, in turn, abuse their positions to control women and children. Recent studies have, again, authenticated common knowledge and reported alcohol and substance abuse as contributing factors to gendered violence and abuse. Poverty and unemployment are, also, repeatedly cited as exacerbating factors that both cause and contribute to gender-based violence.
There is a willingness to name and attribute the defectiveness of capitalism to gendered violence and abuse, but a hesitancy- and direct antagonism- to acknowledge and problematise patriarchy as the root of all violence. Poverty, substance abuse, and women’s subordinate position in the home and broader society are consequences and aggravating components that amplify the violence that already exists. Patriarchy is the ultimate abuse against women, children, men, and other marginalised genders and sexual identities. For even if I, as a woman, am economically empowered, how does my freedom free me from rape culture? Or domestic violence? Or from the burden of retaining my femininity which comes, suddenly, under suspicion with my financial independence?
Patriarchy serves as the defining catalyst that breeds and legitimises violence and discrimination against different genders. Renowned human rights activist and feminist thinker, bell hooks states that “Patriarchal violence in the home is based on the belief that it is acceptable for a more powerful individual to control others through various forms of coercive force”. The writer asserts that the term ‘domestic violence’ insinuates that violence is an intimate and private matter, and suggests that we move to the more halting word “Patriarchy” which relays the idea that this particular form of violence is premised on sexist thinking and male domination.
Patriarchal violence affronts us daily, and is found in the way this country is organised. South Africa’s history is bathed in bloodshed; its present, where acts of force and aggression are employed to achieve an end goal, seep into the private sphere. If we start to think of intimate partner violence- or domestic abuse- as patriarchal violence, then perhaps we can move away from binary thinking in which females are only victims, and males solely perpetrators, and consider why violence is being enacted in the home in the first place. And when we venture to do so, let us refrain from being reductionist in our understanding of violence as not overt aggression, but also manifesting as subtle micro-aggressions that affect us in emotional, mental and spiritual ways; these include emotional labour without reciprocation, thinking of women as property, parenting responsibilities, and limiting children’s agency and silencing their voices.
16 Days of Activism is insufficient and deeply problematic in who it labels as victim and perpetrator. It fails to go as far as changing the hearts, minds, and attitudes of South Africans. Instead, in righteous frustration, it calls for an end to violence against women and children, failing to acknowledge how violence manifests in, frequently, covert ways and against other marginalised genders and sexual orientations. It fails to acknowledge patriarchal violence and how it seeps into the private sphere; how it permeates through our economic, political and social structures and interactions; how it is a fluid concept and system that shows up for everybody.
Until we can acknowledge the malevolence of patriarchy, and how it organises our lives; until we can understand that binary thinking is harmful and exclusionary; until we can begin to interrogate and challenge our prejudicial values and beliefs; until we can actually begin to live justice, equality and freedom each day, I will continue to roll my eyes at a campaign that does little more than wax lyrical. SA.
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