African Voices Against Violence on Women Part II: Domestic Violence is Not A Private Matter
Violence against women is a global endemic that cuts across cultural, traditional, religious and socio-economic status. While silence has often masked this grievous crime against women, African women are beginning to speak out with one voice saying “enough is enough.” In this three-part series during the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence, I will be sharing interviews with three women from Kenya, South Africa and Nigeria as they talk about their fight and quest to ensure the safety of African women who find themselves in abusive situations. Meet Nhlanhla Mokwena, executive director POWA (People Opposing Women Abuse), South Africa. She tells us why domestic violence is not a private matter.
Belinda: There is a video on your website for one of your campaigns from three years ago – ‘The Neighbours’. Can you tell me the story behind that video?
Nhlanhla Mokwena: The story behind that video is that POWA was trying to send a message to South Africans to say domestic violence is no longer a private matter but a matter for all of us to address. So you can no longer keep quiet when you hear a woman screaming, she might need your help. That video was to show South Africans how they respond whenever they hear about domestic violence. As you can see, the video was put in one of the complexes to show people how they respond and to see their reaction towards violence against women. On the first day, this guy is playing drums and there is a lot of noise and the complex residences are able to quickly go to his door and say you are making noise. They even have a petition and you see how they mobilise and advocated for the noise level but when they heard screaming, glass breaking and a woman’s voice in terms screaming, what they do? Nothing! So it was just a mirror to say let’s look at ourselves and look at our reaction when it comes to violence against women. We are able to mobilise quickly when it comes to other issues but when it’s violence against woman, we turn a blind eye.
Given the work POWA has been doing through the years, what are the root causes for domestic violence and what are some of the reasons that make people keep quiet within South Africa?
The root causes we feel as an organisation is the patriarchal society and the inequalities, especially in terms of how we raise the boy and girl child. I mean in terms of patriarchy, South Africa is a patriarchal society based on our cultural and religious beliefs. South Africa puts a main person (the man) as the head of the family, which means the woman is the subordinate and during a time when men are feeling that women are progressing and women have more opportunities now in terms of job opportunities and business, you find that a lot of men, when they feel that that power they used to have due to the constitution and due to women development is slipping, they feel threatened. For some of them, the only way they can regain that power is by inciting violence or by scaring women and children because our levels of violence are very high among women and children. As an organisation, those are the things that we have come to understand as the root causes of domestic violence or even rape because our levels are also high when it comes to rape. But we can say we have a good constitution and very progressive laws but our statistic in terms of dealing with these issues are not decreasing, they are increasing. In terms of the silence, what causes women not to speak out is fear of the perpetrator but also fear that society does not believe that they are being raped or abused or society is actually blaming the victims in terms of what is happening to them. If you are a married woman, you cannot air your dirty laundry in public. So that is why the advert is about saying it’s no longer a domestic matter, it’s a scourge in our country and we cannot be silent when it’s happening to our neighbour.
People are saying as an organisation you have been in existence for such a long time, don’t you think it’s about time you address men and we are saying as an organisation, we have not even dealt with this issue or the women, the status of women has not changed for us as POWA to take on the issue of men but we do work with organisations in terms of them dealing with men to end the scourge of violence against women. And you know, a lot of women’s rights organisations are struggling when it comes to funding and we are struggling because violence against women is not like your sexy thing people want to invest in. We are struggling with funding to provide the needed services. We are also struggling with funding to develop creative prevention programmes. We feel that we really need to invest in prevention programmes. If we are saying we are going into schools, we have to start at Grade One and it should be a one year programme. How are we going to measure our success if we don’t have programmes that are invested in our young ones and how are we going to measure change if there are no programmes addressing parents at home because I cannot have a programme at school but the very same child is going back home to an abusive environment. Will my intervention at the school level make a difference? No, it won’t, because while I’m dealing with the child at school, youth club and playground, I also have to deal with their parents. We have always been saying the different socialisations of the boy child to the girl child are also some of the causes because boys grow up to understand they are the better sex. The world is out there for them to do whatever they can do. The girl is out there to be submissive and act like a lady. So if we have parents who still believe in that, it’s very difficult to actually say we will raise a nation of boys and girls, who take each other as equal and who respect and love each other because a man knows that if I slap her, I’m actually slapping myself.
What are the current stats in South Africa when it comes to violence against women in South Africa?
Statistics show that internationally, one in 6 women are in an abusive relationship. In South Africa, it’s about one in four that’s in an abusive relationship and it’s very scary. In terms of research, we do not have one body that is collecting statistics. The national crime stats are collected by the police and you will find that you will be told that violence against women is decreasing but there are also problems with our justice system. People are disillusioned with the system; the cases take a very long time. Someone can be raped today (2013) and you will find out that the perpetrators are going to be tried next year. What this does is make the victims tired. You will find victims become so pissed off because it’s a year later, sometimes, two or three years later before their case is heard. By that time they are angry and leave it and had rather come to an organisation like POWA to talk about their problem and begin a process of being able to cope with the trauma because there is no healing in such a matter. Survivors will tell you I think I will feel better when perpetrators are booked and convicted. In other words, if a survivor does not experience that, she is traumatised forever because what she wanted has not been done and other survivors will say I don’t want to go through the court because ‘I feel like I’m being raped again and I have to prove myself’ because the burden of proof is on the survivor. She has to prove what time it happened, whether she said no or yes…these are things victims have to deal with. Since the burden of proof is on her and because she has read it in the newspaper about how the justice system is not working, she ends up deciding ‘I’m not going through that.’ I won’t put myself through that. I won’t traumatise myself. I would rather focus on myself by getting either counseling or writing about my story about what has happened to me.’
Why are still ashamed to talk about domestic violence?
It’s like why are we hanging our dirty laundry in public and have people say how can you do that? Could you not have resolved that somewhere else rather than bringing whosoever you spoke to into this and shaming our family? You are shaming our clan or you are shaming our society. It’s difficult to come out, even in middle class South Africa; women had rather go to a private psychologist and a private lawyer. They don’t come to POWA because they feel ashamed and the stigma – their counterparts, people who are in the same social standing as them are not receptive. They will be judging and saying how you can complain about domestic violence when you have such a nice car and such a beautiful home and your life is so good.
What role you think patriarchy, culture and tradition play when it comes to violence against women?
You may find that a woman in South Africa, in the rural area may never even know about her right. She does not know about the constitution, she doesn’t know there is a domestic violence act and it’s in the culture of society where you have to respect your boyfriend or husband, what will happen? Who she will go to? The elder of the clan and when she gets there, if the chief is a person who believes in patriarchy, obviously, that woman will never see a day where her case is resolved accordingly. Either the husband or boyfriend can go speak to the chief and they discuss it among themselves and they say you must stop doing this and he goes and tells the woman you must not go to the chief all the time when I slap you around…it’s a minor thing. We now have the traditional court bill which is under discussion in South Africa and we are hearing that these women in the rural areas do not have access to services like POWA. So if you are going to give the chief a law which will give them the authority, because at this point in time, they have that authority but it’s not a law, if we do formulate the authority to give them the law to preside over such issues, what is going to happen to women in those particular villages? It will make things worse. Though we have the constitution and all these laws, women in the urban areas are oppressed by their own culture and society and you may find in a particular area, people practice a certain religion but because it’s a small community in an urban area, women in those parts of the country are unable to speak because its about shaming this very nice community of people who we think should be behaving well. So if it does happen that there is domestic violence or they are abused, due to their religious beliefs, these women are not speaking out. When you go to churches, you hear people preaching the man is the head of the family, the woman is the neck. The head cannot turn if the neck is not strong. Why? We should be advocating that men and woman are both human beings and they both have equal rights and have a right to be protected equally. So if our young ones can get an opportunity to grow up equally in society. NGOs and civil society organisations cannot be developing programmes to deal with children without programmes that not dealing with adults. Otherwise, we will never win this battle. We look forward to the day when our girls and boys see each other as equal.
Are there laws that address with violence against women?
We have the Domestic Violence Act and we also have the sexual offences act. Those are specific to domestic violence and rape. You find that these are good and progressive but the implementation on the ground is where the challenge is– if I present myself at a police station and I say I have been raped and the person I see has never read or had any sensitivity training regarding sexual offences, how do you think that person will treat me? I might get a very compassionate police man who is passionate about these issues but if it’s someone who has never heard about the law and does not even have the courtesy, the Ubuntu courtesy of treating someone as a human being which is a simple principle where you don’t even need to read the law, you simply say I can listen because a crime has been committed and I’m going to do my best to take down this statement and make sure this woman has access to a doctor. If I cannot deal with it, I’m going to speak to an organisation to assist you. Then it’s important that at the front desk, people treat you right. By the way, we are not saying all South African police are bad
How strong a case can you make against the perpetrator when the victim has a voice in comparison to when they don’t because they have been so mentally battered?
I think it’s important for the survivors to have a voice. When the abuse happens, start documenting because it’s important and you can also get someone outside the house to document for you, so that when the time comes to face your family, culture or society, you are not coming with just the one incident, you are coming with a whole lot of other incidents where you were documenting things and even telling a friend who was also documenting it. By teaching women to speak out either by keeping a diary or telling someone, that will help when the time comes to speak out and you have evidence. We found that women take 10-15 years to actually leave abusive situations. So if they are documenting those incidents with a particular friend or someone they talk to, you find they build a strong case.
What support mechanisms do you use to support children caught in abusive homes?
We have schools programme and we go into school to talk to children and as POWA we deal with children from grade eight upwards but there are a whole loot of other organisations that provide services to primary school children.
One of the MDGs is ending violence against women, is that dream feasible given the current state of things?
If we have incidents of a mentally ill girl being raped and the perpetrators record the incident and the video goes viral, we still a long way to go. We need to work together as a society and as a continent and say you know what, this is a problem. It’s un-African and this is how we are going to deal with it together. In South Africa, we have the 365 days campaign but we find that government in terms of marketing the programme is only during our women’s month and during our 16 days of activism against domestic violence and we are saying we really need to take this plan and start using it as the 365 days plan. So that it’s not only during those calendar month campaigns but daily. There are programmes that look at intervention and service provision concurrently and I think there are also organisations that are now saying yes, we also need to start looking at working with boy children and men. We need comprehensive programmes that will address this issues and the biggest thing is to ensure the laws are implemented. As long as criminals enjoy impunity and the burden of proof is on women who have been raped and assaulted, what happens? So it’s important that the law sends out a strong message.
What is your message to women who deal with these issues as to what to do?
The biggest message is that when a woman says ‘I’m being abused,’ men and women and in the particular community take a stand and say ‘we are a loving and caring community; we are not going to allow this to happen.’ Let good men stand up and say brother what you are doing is wrong. And women say sister, what’s happening to you is wrong. We will work with you and support you. Let other women not judge women who speak out. Let us forget our cultural beliefs and let us just respect one another as human beings. It cannot be culture when we hurt one another.
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