Thank you for inviting me to this service and asking me to speak on a topic very close to my heart – the appalling levels of assault, kidnapping, human trafficking, rape and murder inflicted on our women and children in South Africa.
It is becoming almost impossible to find a newspaper, or listen to a radio and TV news bulletin, which does not include one or more horror stories about attacks on women and/or children. One of the most recent victims was a union comrade from NUMSA, Thembisile Yende, who was brutally murdered at the Eskom sub-station where she worked.
We must all unite, not just to condemn these appalling crimes, but to do more to turn the tide, bring the offenders to justice and build a country in which women and children can live in safety and peace.
The South African Federation of Trade Unions has already joined the battle to end this national disgrace and we have made it a top priority. We are all angry but unless this anger is channelled into action, the problem will remain, only to be mentioned once a year during the 16 Days of Activism. Nothing will be done until we have not just 16 but 365 days of activism and relentless campaigning to change everyone’s, especially men’s attitudes to women and children.
A big part of the problem, aS Kathleen Dey of the Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust wrote recently, is that “In a country where rape culture underpins our gender relations and where violence of this kind is almost a norm, because we see it on a daily basis, perhaps we are not as shocked as we should be. And because we are not as shocked as we should be perhaps we are not reacting as we should.
The problem is rooted in a society in which patriarchy, sexism, racism, homophobia and violent suppression of dissent was entrenched under colonialism and apartheid and women, especially black women were the main victims. That reality still continues today. Women are continuously side-lined and discriminated against in leadership positions at work or in union, community and political structures.
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 which relate to women’s empowerment and upward mobility on the factory floor.
Patriarchy is still pervasive in society, seen in the way boys are brought up – to be tough, to fight and not to show any soft feelings or display weakness; from an early age they are told “boys don’t cry”. Many boys who have seen their fathers hit their mothers as they are growing up are more likely to see this as normal and acceptable.
When they become adults, men feel expected to be in charge of the family and their workplace, and justified in using violence to enforce their will against those they see as subordinates. Culture and religion are sometimes also used as an excuse for men to dominate women and children and even to beat them if they fail to do as they are told.
Women are frequently reluctant to report such violence because too often police and courts to refuse to treat violence against women, especially against partners, as seriously as other violent crimes, or even not to take any action at all.
As many recent callers to radio stations have confirmed, rather then investigate the charge themselves the police demand that the woman herself must identify the attacker and provide proof that he is guilty. Rape victims often battle to prove that they did not consent to the act.
To counter this a massive national campaign is required. Both churches and unions must play a leading role in educating and mobilizing their members to set an example by desisting from violence against women and reporting others who they have witnessed behaving violently to women.
The central demand must be for zero tolerance to all forms of violence against women and children, fast-tracking of the legal processes and the harshest possible sentences for those found guilty.
Church members and workers must be at the forefront of the campaign for gender equity in the workplace, the community, political parties and civil society, to rid society of the scourge of violence against women.