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Not much to celebrate this Women’s Day

As we commemorate the women who marched to the Union Buildings in 1956 to demand greater rights for all of South Africa’s citizens, Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya reflects on the fact that equality and justice remain elusive for many women. He calls for a change of focus on this holiday to tackle contemporary gender-based issues.

Femicide has become so commonplace in South Africa that the word needs little explanation. However, when I dropped the word “femicide” into a conversation with a non-South African friend who is well travelled and highly educated, she asked me what it meant.

Surely this is a telltale sign that something is wrong in our country?

In 2016, the World Health Organisation noted that South Africa’s femicide rate of 12,1 per 100 000 women were five times more than the global average.

In 2018 alone, facts-checking organisation Africa Check published three articles confirming South Africa’s femicide statistics. The number of women murdered in South Africa has increased annually over the past five years, with a total 16,2% increase over that period. The latest statistic indicates that “15,2 out of every 100 000 women were victims of murder”.

On the eve of Women’s Day, Cape Town resident Meghan Cremer was has been found dead in Phillipi several days after a presumed hijacking in which her car was later recovered.

We have a problem.

The many forms of violence against women

Gender-based violence (GBV) is not just physical violence, as described by the South African government’s 2018 GBV campaign. It can also include any of the following situations where one partner “seems fearful of their other partner; spend[s] less time with family and friends; [is] often criticised or belittled by their partner; [the] partner is jealous, possessive and/or aggressive; [has] become unusually quiet or withdrawn; and [has] physical injuries such as bruises or broken bones”.

Gender-based violence is not just physical violence.

A female relative told me how some of her colleagues had started a rumour that her promotion at the company where she was recently employed, could only be because she has inappropriate relations with her male boss. She shrugged it off as corporate gossip.

Women and girls are also more susceptible than males to being trafficked for the sex trade or as house slaves. A report by the Institute for Security Studies in 2018 noted that collecting trafficking data in South Africa is an “elusive statistical nightmare.” Nevertheless, it is thought that women and girls are regularly trafficked from the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal and are taken to Gauteng where they are made to work in brothels.

These numbers confirm that South African women are not just victims of violence. They live on the margins of society and many have sadly accepted this situation as normal.

Even churches, where the dignity of all their members – including women – should be safeguarded, have at times been spaces of abuse.

The 58-year-old televangelist, Timothy Omototso, is appearing in the Port Elizabeth High Court facing more than 90 charges, including the rape and trafficking of more than 30 girls and women from various branches of his church.

In February, Pope Francis admitted that some clerics had sexually abused nuns. He described this abuse as an abuse of power. In response, the Vatican dissolved some religious communities where this was rife and other cases continue to be investigated.

… “the mistreatment of women is a problem”, not just in the Church, but also in society.

Pope Francis prefaced this admission with the statement that “the mistreatment of women is a problem”, not just in the Church, but also in society, which “has yet matured” and where “the woman is still considered ‘second-class’”.

What does Women’s Day mean for us?

On this Women’s Day, we are called to reflect on these words. What does this day mean for us?

As a man, I acknowledge that it might not be my place to raise the issues I am raising here, but I also believe that things must change.

Gender justice is a human rights imperative and not a nice-to-have. As with all human rights issues, it is not just the job of those directly affected to raise consciousness and demand change for the better.

Women’s Day reminds us that the women who marched on the Union Buildings on 9 August 1956, did so in the name of human rights and social justice. Yet they are also the members of our society who are most deprived of justice and those rights.

… [women] are the members of our society who are most deprived of justice and those rights.

Put differently, how useful is it to say “Happy Women’s Day” to a category of people who live with fear and loathing every day, when we do not acknowledge their truth?

For this reason I strongly believe that changing the name of the day to something like “Gender Justice Day” would both address the historic roots of the day and ask contemporary questions around gender issues.

Furthermore, it would return the greatest perpetrators of gender injustice – men – to the mainstream of the issues, because they too would have to reflect on the role they play in furthering or hindering gender justice.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.