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16 Days of Activism

16 Days of Activism: South Africa has a lot to learn – Shirley Walters

It’s summer. You want to be outdoors, go walking, hit the beach, have a picnic - but when you’re a woman and living in South Africa, you tend to think twice. Whether in your home or in public spaces, the fear of violence against you as a woman is almost always on your mind.

Unfortunately, gender-based violence (GBV) will probably remain with us for quite some time, says emeritus Prof Shirley Walters from the University of the Western Cape, as South Africa’s 16 Days of Activism campaign hits full swing.

Prof Walters was founding director of UWC’s Division for Lifelong Learning, and recently became one of seven 2016 recipients of an Honorary Fellowship from the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL) in Germany, for her outstanding contributions to lifelong learning.

A feminist and educator who has been active within social justice oriented civil society organisations for over 35 years, Prof Walters says gender-based violence continues to be an enormous problem all over the world, not just in South Africa.

According to reports by the South African Medical Research Council, in collaboration with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the World Health Organisation (WHO) about 45.6% of women in Africa experienced physical and sexual violence, compared to 35% worldwide.

“I was in Brazil at the Association for Women in Development Conference in September, and I went to a session called Young African Feminists Speak – where young activists discussed what they think are key issues for young women in Africa,” she says. “And each one of the women, from West, East and Southern Africa, all spoke about the massive problem of gender-based violence in their countries.”

Gender-based violence is embedded in the ideology of patriarchy – where the man traditionally has the leading role; in the social, political and cultural norms and the economic systems that we live under.

“It’s not something that is going to be ‘solved’ anytime soon - and especially not without changing fundamental systemic issues that maintain relationships of power amongst women and men,” notes Prof Walters.

A practical example: Some women earning more than their male partners still encounter pressure for doing so, or would receive no emotional and other support when they are better qualified or attempt to study further on a part-time basis.

Gender based violence is of course not only about men and women, it is about all people whose sexuality is not heteronormative – people located on a spectrum of non-conforming genders suffer violence and abuse. “Those who are not heterosexual have a very hard time.”  

Activism Against Gender-Based Violence: The Way Forward

The 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children campaign raises awareness about the negative impact of violence against women and children on all members of the community. It takes place every year from 25 November (International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women) to 10 December (International Human Rights Day).

So has the campaign worked in South Africa?

“The campaign has largely failed,” says Walters. “The millions of Rands spent on 16 Days of Activism could rather be spent supporting rape crisis centres, women’s and non-conforming genders’ shelters or safe houses, or other services that are desperately needed to support people who are threatened or are survivors of GBV.”

There are potential solutions to gender-based violence, Prof Walters notes - but they will require collective effort through multiple institutions to implement.

“Universities and other educational institutions should be compelled to implement policies and create campus cultures that are safe for all who live and work there. It is unacceptable that so many people cower in fear of violence of all kinds.”

Long-term educational, political, cultural and social work is needed to make any kind of dent in the level of violence and abuse.

“Social student and community movements need to be encouraged and supported. I think of the women at Rhodes University and elsewhere, who stripped naked to bring attention to the rape culture – these efforts need to be lauded and supported.”

The more we speak about and protest GBV, the better – so a `new normal’ culture develops which refuses to tolerate it.

“Every woman, man, girl and boy needs to be encouraged to say ‘enough is enough’ and to be supported in their resistance to GBV, and their efforts to build a new, safer culture for all to flourish in,” she concludes. “Only then can we really begin to tackle the problem.”

How to Combat Gender-Based Violence: Tips from Prof Shirley Walters

  1. Speak up and out if you see or experience GBV.

  2. Attend GBV workshops to understand that the problem is not ‘you’, but is related to oppressive systems.

  3. Form a support group with friends and./or associates you feel comfortable with, so you can talk about what is happening, and together you can think of strategies to limit or stop GBV.

  4. Find the closest Rape Crisis Centre or Women’s Shelter near you – check if they have training workshops for volunteers, and get involved.

  5. Join or support social movements campaigning to stop ‘rape culture’ or any other form of GBV.

  6. Commit to ensuring that the organisation you work or study with has GBV policies which are implemented – ask probing questions; raise the issue where ever you are to bring attention to what is happening.

  7. Create alliances with other women and men, boys and girls who are determined to end GBV.