365 Days of action to end gender violence

No matter what the verdict, a stark reality will remain. As South Africans celebrate the tenth anniversary of our Constitution, its lofty provisions are still just so many words for the majority of women, whose daily lives are punctuated by poverty, violence and a disproportionate burden of HIV/AIDS. The case involving allegations of rape against former Deputy President Jacob Zuma by a young woman dubbed Kwezi has brought out the best and the worst in the fragile efforts to build a culture of human rights for women over the last decade. Camps on two sides of the street in front of the Johannesburg High Court have both hurled insults at the young woman and come out firmly in defense of her right to speak out. Much has been made about the Zuma case taking South Africa back five years in the campaign against HIV/AIDS because of his having sex with an HIV positive woman without using a condom and suggesting that a shower would wash it all away. The same could be said about many of the messages that the most high profile of rape cases has sent out on gender violence. All the worst stereotypes surrounding this scourge have been laid bare: that women ask to be violated because of the way they dress and behave; that men are not able to contain their sexual urges; that rape and sex can somehow be equated. The strongest message that needs to emerge is that made by the Nine in One Campaign that has found its voice in the wake of the Zuma case. This is that entire systems, from the laws, to the way police react, to the courts, to public attitudes, results in only a tiny proportion of women ever reporting, let alone getting a conviction in cases concerning gender violence. What is needed and what is at the heart of a ground breaking conference from 3-5 May is a comprehensive, multi sector strategy and plan for ensuring that this happens. A follow up to the Sixteen Days of Activism campaign that runs from 25 November to 10 December, the conference is the first attempt to stretch this campaign into a structured year- long campaign with tangible outcomes that can be used to measure progress under the banner: 365 days of action to end gender violence. Conceived by government and civil society partners, the plan will harness the momentum generated by a number of significant commemorations in 2006: the fact that this year will be the sixteen years of the sixteen days; that it is the tenth anniversary of the Constitution and the fiftieth anniversary of the march by women to the Union Buildings on 9 August. Making use of the “checklist for change” that emerged the 2005 Sixteen Day campaign that included nation-wide cyber dialogues in three languages organised by the Government Information and Communication Services (GCIS) and Gender Links, the conference will agree on actions to be taken, timeframes, roles and responsibilities in ten thematic areas. With approximately 200 participants from all spheres including national, provincial and local government, Constitutional bodies like the Commission on Gender Equality, civil society, the private sector, traditional authorities, and labour organisations, the action plan will also agree a coordinating mechanism to ensure that effective action and mutual accountability. Key issues to be addressed include: l Although there are signs of other “contact crimes” declining, each year the number of reported rape cases rises, with 55,000 such cases reported last year. This figure is estimated to be just the tip of the ice berg, as many cases go unreported. l Only 7% of such cases result in conviction. The conviction rate in special Sexual Offences courts is much higher, but the current number of such courts only services one tenth of the need. l The Sexual Offenses Bill, first tabled in 1996, and promised for the first quarter of this year, has still not been passed. Among issues covered by this legislation that have proved pertinent in the Zuma case is the admissibility of evidence relating to ones sexual history. l New forms of violence such as trafficking have emerged and these are not adequately addressed in existing legislation. l Police statistics do not have a distinct category for domestic violence. With an estimated one in three women being physically, mentally, or financially abused, there is need to track this form of violence far more systematically. Numerous studies show that the Domestic Violence Act is inadequately resourced and not effectively implemented. l Despite the fact that sexual offences expose survivors to a high risk of being infected by HIV, Post Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP) is not readily available in many health facilities and there is a low level of awareness among women of the need to immediately avail oneself of this course of treatment in the event of a sexual assault. l While the government’s One Stop Thutuzela centres and other models that offer comprehensive treatment, care and access to legal services have proved successful, these only service a tiny portion of the need. There is need for more such specialised facilities and also for all health and police services to be equipped and trained to address gender violence comprehensively and sensitively, to ensure that women have access to dignified services anywhere they may be. l Places of safety for women and children, many run by NGOs, struggle to stay open. These facilities are also unequally distributed across provinces and are mostly concentrated in big cities. l The role of local government, responsible for providing street lights, parks, and potentially in supporting places of safety requires far greater canvassing. l The role of business and labour in ensuring work places free of sexual harassment and support to employees experiencing gender violence also needs to be brought to the fore. Ultimately, the solution to gender violence rests with changing attitudes and mindsets. Among the ten thematic working groups at the conference, in such areas as legislation and policy; the criminal justice system; gender violence and the work place; comprehensive treatment and care; infrastructure and places of safety one will address education and awareness, including the role of schools, men’s organizations and traditional authorities. Another group will address the role of the media that has helped to raise awareness but also at times fuelled the flames with headlines like “Zuma’s fifteen minutes of delicious sex”; “Drop it” (in reference to Kwezi) and “the carnival atmosphere outside the court.” The conference, that will be opened by Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, will close with a symbolic recommitment to the clauses in the Constitution that affirm gender equality and the right to bodily integrity under the banner “Ten years later: Making the Constitution work for Women and Children.” l Colleen Lowe Morna is Executive Director of Gender Links. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service.

May 2006
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