Searching for justice in the war on womxn’s bodies

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Whether in Kinshasa or Cape Town, the situation hasn’t changed for womxn. 

In late August 2018, I’m struggling to read my printed-out workshop notes while bouncing around on a tiny United Nations Humanitarian Air Services flight between Kinshasa and Kananga. 

I’ve been sent on a mission to facilitate training sessions on understanding, mitigating and responding to sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) in the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The conflict in the DRC often manifested through acts of SGBV in the form of abduction, assault and rape of women, as well as boys and girls. 

After an all-nighter of uncomfortable transit and travel, as we land, I feel dazed, perspiring and anxious. I drive over to the venue, an old house, and start the first workshop. The masculine humanitarian workers struggle to talk about sex and sexual violence without employing shame or blaming the victim… 

A year later I’m facilitating a workshop with a group of youth activists in Cape Town when we notice the posters, online and in person, searching for Uyinene Mrwetyana, a UCT student who went missing and was found to have been brutally raped and murdered at a local post office. 

Working as a facilitator means my experience is often shaped by stories of and responses to violence. Like the DRC, South Africa bears the hallmarks of a country in conflict. In South Africa, we live in compounds surrounded by high walls, electrified fences and men in uniform bearing arms. This compound culture plays out in the places we shop, the friendships we make and who we deem dangerous, as well as the ways in which we firmly shut and lock our doors to keep out the ever-pending danger. 

It is also important to mention that this experience of violence has everything to do with gender, race and class in the South African context, the spatial apartheid of our compound culture is as apparent in the high walls of Constantia as it is in the modest homes in Imizamo Yethu. This bears true not only in terms of the securitised culture we inhabit; it is apparent in the numbers when it comes to violence.

South Africa has one of the highest rates globally in terms of intentional homicide, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). During the 2018-2019 period, in statistics verified by Africa Check, violence manifested in the following ways:

  • More than 21 000 people were murdered, with the Eastern and Western Capes having the highest murder rates.
  • Of those murdered, approximately 2 771 were women and 1 014 were children.
  • 51 765 robberies occurred, with 140 032 robberies with aggravating circumstances (using a gun or another weapon).
  • When it comes to SGBV, during this period 52 420 sexual offences occurred, rape being the most reported sexual offence, and sexual assault being the second-most reported.
  • It’s important to note that the national SGBV statistics don’t account for gender-nonconforming, queer and trans people. While these groups aren’t captured in statistics, evidence suggests sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression play a role in experiencing SGBV.
  • 162 012 assaults occurred, and 170 979 assaults with intent to do bodily harm.
  • According to the national victims of crime survey most assault survivors know the perpetrators of the assault, with perpetrators being community members, spouses or partners, or relatives.

According to the Institute for Security Studies the police’s statistics on rape and assault should not be viewed as an accurate measure of assault, sexual offences or other forms of violence. The trust in police affects how willing we are to report offences: the experience of secondary trauma while reporting acts as a barrier and the fact that the survivor may know the perpetrator may act as a deterrent to reporting.

Activists often talk about “the war on womxn’s bodies”. These statistics highlight that this is not just rhetoric or a discursive strategy. South Africa is at war with itself — with women, queer and trans folk and children bearing the burden of this conflict. With tens of thousands of attacks each year, it is a very heavy burden to hold. According to UNODC this violence is driven by poverty and economic disparities (among others). In addition, says Sonke Gender Justice, not just economic factors, but social, religious and cultural contexts also shape the attitudes and behaviours which cause violence. At an individual level violence could be related to access to adequate housing, healthcare or other forms of socioeconomic disadvantage. 

Working to end GBV, then, is about disrupting patriarchal norms whilst also ensuring access to basic resources and opportunities that close in on economic disparities. 

At a national level, on one hand, we could think about resources allocated to police, criminal justice and security services; on the other, we could think more broadly about allocating resources to interventions, such as a basic income, which are more likely to lessen income disparities and poverty. 

Contributing to the end of GBV is about ensuring those working to support survivors and hold perpetrators accountable are equipped, capable and sensitive, while also creating public programmes that contribute to closing economic and other power disparities. We can’t end violence without ending inequality.

Ending violence is about confronting ourselves. In the Muslim spaces where I grew up, men rarely washed dishes or cooked; women were not (and are not) allowed to lead faith spaces as an imam; only men could initiate a divorce and divorced women often faced dire economic consequences; and male guardianship and bride price practices are still common. These are just some of the examples of the ways that everyday small acts of violence, which are not counted in the stats, produce an environment where gendered violence is not only prevalent but a necessary outcome.

Violence doesn’t occur without resistance; we need to acknowledge the culture of resistance that challenges and combats patriarchal violence. In the DRC, the organisation Women for Indigenous Promotion and Development worked on the front lines to support women and other victims of the conflict. The conflict between government forces and militias in the DRC has affected rural communities in the Kasai region, leading to displacement and food insecurity. 

In Cape Town, young women created the posters searching for Uyinene and planned the protest action and commemoration events to mark her passing. 

Violence doesn’t occur without resistance. From sex worker rights activists to the women of Marikana, South Africa is not short on resistance. Feminist resistance is what shapes and inspires our search for gender justice. Campus spaces stand to learn from the work of feminist activist approaches and methods.

In our search for justice in the war on womxn’s bodies, we need to locate GBV within the broader context of violence, which affects all of us. We all have been either directly affected or know someone who has. If we are to find and further justice, we need to challenge patriarchal efforts, invest in survivor-centred solutions and work to end poverty and economic inequalities.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.





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