The South African Federation of Trade Unions commits itself to fully supporting the 16 days of Activism for No Violence against Women and Children, from 25 November to 10 December, but also insists that this campaign must not end in December but continue every day until we bring to an end the sexual abuse, assaults, rapes and murders which so many women and children suffer and which still go largely unpunished.
Women are the worst victims of a society in which violent crime and gangsterism is getting out of control. One in five women have suffered physical attacks and the figure is even higher in the poorest communities. Thousands of women suffer pain, fear and trauma, as a result. This reality was tragically brought home to us by the brutal murder of our NUMSA comrade Thembisile Yende while working at Eskom. The trial of her alleged murderer has just begun.
Thembisile was one in a long list of victims of such brutal murders in South Africa:
These are some of the worst cases, but only a few of many thousands. Statistics SA reports that 21%of women over 18 have been violent abused by their domestic partners, 25% have experienced gender-based violence, More than 100 people are raped every day and the Medical Research council estimates that half of South Africa’s children will be abused before they reach 18.
And all these figures are probably underestimates, given the number of unreported cases. Some estimates are that the number of rapes could be as high as seven times those reported.
One of the reasons for the low reporting rate are a lack of confidence that the police and courts will take these offences seriously. In 2009, according to the police’s own statistics, the conviction rate for murder in this country was 13% and for rape 11.5%. But other estimates in 2014 said the conviction rate for rape is as low as 10%.
This has perpetuated a culture of impunity, mixed with patriarchy, chauvinism and racism, which we inherited from the days of colonialism and apartheid. Too many men feel justified in using violence to enforce their will against partners and children, and women in general. Culture and religion are also misused as an excuse for men to dominate and assault women.
It leads to offenders, particularly when the victim is a partner, to believe they have little chance of their offence ending up in court or themselves landing in jail, and so they just carry on as before.
There is too still a problem of so-called “corrective rape” against who are perceived to be lesbian, attacks on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people and the disgusting new outbreak of raping elderly women by people who are well-known to them.
Fortunately there are some glimmers of hope that this may be changing, with the announcement on the eve of the 16 days that Oscar Pistorious’ sentence for murdering his partner has been increased from six to 13 years and the life sentence for Christopher Panayiotou, after he was convicted of murdering his wife.
It is not just a South African problem. The U.N. women’s agency estimates 35% of women worldwide have experienced either physical or sexual violence, or both, from an intimate partner or non-partner, though some national studies put the figure from an intimate partner as high as 70% .
SAFTU is encouraged by the outpouring of allegations of sexual misconduct against powerful men in Hollywood, in the U.S. Congress and boardrooms, the revelations about entertainers like Jimmy Saville and Bill Cosby – and here in the Danny Jordaan and the Mayor of Emfuleni, Simon Mofokeng – which have put the issue on front pages and TV screens around the world.
“This is the moment!” says Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the executive director of UN Women, “It really has to come out of the woodwork… In the past, the story would have just been shoved under the carpet… Now, she said, “women are being believed more and more.”
Encouraging as these developments are, we cannot take for granted that the tide has turned. At the very least we have to fight to ensure that all those now being accused are charged, brought to court and severely punished if found guilty.
As trade unions we also have to fight for women workers who have been sexually harassed or assaulted in their workplace, or even in their union, and encourage them to also say #MeToo. This is harder than for Hollywood stars given the levels of patriarchy in the work hierarchy, the use of intimidation to stop whistleblowers and the danger of being dismissed or even murdered if they speak out.
The underlying reason for the persistence of these attacks on women workers, and the horrendous statistics of violent crime is the massive levels of unemployment and poverty, in a capitalist society, which has become dysfunctional and structurally incapable of reforming itself.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has admitted that violence against women and girls — “the most visible sign of pervasive patriarchy and chauvinism” — will only end “when gender equality and the full empowerment of women become a reality”.
We shall only overcome the scourge of crimes against women and children when we end the triple crisis of poverty, unemployment and inequality which are all intractably linked to the way we are all brutalized by a competitive, ‘me-first’ free-market capitalist economy when the pursuit of profit is the only morality.
South African women workers suffer triple exploitation, as workers, as women and as black Africans. Every year the Employment Equity Commission (CEE) report confirms how little progress we have made in 23 years of democracy to uplift the status of the black majority and women in particular.
In South Africa 40% of women are unemployed. In the rural areas, it is even higher. In the workplace the majority of women stay at the bottom end of the wage scale and in more vulnerable positions of employment. Many employers continue to resist the training and promotion of women and are not complying with the provisions of the Employment Equity Act. Women are continuously sidelined and discriminated against in leadership positions at work, in community and political structures and in the trade unions.
This situation is made worse by the fact that in many cases women workers also have to do most of the work in their family home, and worse still face the massive threat of both physical and sexual violence not only at work, but on the journey to and from work and in the home itself.
To counter this SAFTU is creating a gender structure to lead a massive national campaign of educating and mobilizing our members and encouraging them to set an example by stopping violence against women and reporting others who they witness behaving violently to women.
There must be zero tolerance to all forms of violence and sexual harassment against women and children, fast tracking of the legal processes and the harshest possible sentences for those found guilty.
And this is a campaign not just for women but for men to speak out. Mlambo-Ngcuka quoted Nelson Mandela who said that “when good men do not do anything where there are violations against women, there is a conspiracy against women.”