Recently I was walking in Cape Town’s city centre with a good friend of mine. As we crossed the road, a few construction workers in a truck nearby began to verbally harass her, calling her a string of disgusting things.
So I yelled to them, “Fuck off!” They seemed rather indignant but obliged. Indignant, because they – like so many other South African men – believe that because my friend is a woman, she’s fair game to abuse, to proposition, to treat like a sexual plaything. They believe she is an inferior being – and because of that they have the right to say (and potentially do) to her what they like.
This isn’t the first time my friend has experienced this sort of thing. As a public transport-user it happens all the time. And not just to her: to many women. And tragically, many women face far more humiliating and painful situations at the hands of men (of men they know, sometimes whom they are even married to). Violence against women is endemic.
Because we live in a society which still considers women to be inferior and subordinate to men. We live in a melting pot of cultures which all reinforce the notion of women as objects – objects that can be used and exploited and subjugated because of the fallacy that they are lesser beings. It’s no wonder that there are 54 000 reported rapes in South Africa each year. It’s outrageous, unacceptable and tragic – but not surprising.
While the rights of women are enshrined in our constitution, there has been a failure for those rights to be protected. Often the very systems in place that are meant to protect women from abuse are those perpetuating abuse themselves. Police harassment of prostitutes is well documented.
In cases of abuse, the onus is almost always put on the woman. It’s the woman’s fault she was leered at. Slapped around. Beaten up. Raped. And so, should a rape victim sum up sufficient courage to report the incident at a police station, inadequate training and a lack of sensitivity often leads to responses like “But you were wearing a miniskirt. What did you expect?”
There has been a near-total failure for the values of gender equality to be taught and imposed in the home, at school and, in some cases, even the workplace. These values are ignored and violated in virtually every facet of South African life.
This needs to end. The constitutional values that protect women and guarantee their equality with men cannot continue to exist only on paper. They need to become living, celebrated, cherished by all South Africans – both men and women. We need to fight the pervasive inequality that continues to exist between genders, perpetuated by media stereotyping, misguided schooling, negative peer influences, bad parenting and dysfunctional home life. Because not only is gender inequality wrong – that’s a given – but also by fighting for equality we will be destroying the horrifying delusions that justify the abuse of women. We will be striking at the very root of which abuse against women is the symptom.
Currently the annual 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence is being commemorated worldwide. We need to go a step further. We need 365 days against gender-based violence every year. And it needs to start now.