“Talking about violence against women on Women’s Day is a stain on the celebration. Victims must get over it and move on.” These are the words of the publicist for a Women’s Day event that the Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust was invited to participate in. I was questioning the absence of organisations dealing with violence against women besides our own. Almost 50 years ago 20 000 women marched on the Union Buildings in Pretoria in order to claim their right to move freely in their society without harassment. With rape statistics what they are today it is clear that these rights have not been fully realised in spite of advances in women’s freedoms. You can imagine how startled I was by her words.
Popular opinion about Women’s Day swings between support for celebratory events, speeches and ceremonies geared towards women’s achievements and more critical takes on the day’s failure to advance the fight for women’s rights. The commercialisation of the day and turning it into a day to pamper women akin to Mother’s Day or Valentine’s Day also comes up for some harsh words from commentators. Despite constitutional equality between the sexes, cultural, religious and other factors promote a view of women as unequal. High rape statistics and the underreporting of sexual offences in general come under the media spotlight repeatedly. Women’s work is unpaid or underpaid and undervalued because it is performed by women. Lesbians, transgendered people, sex workers, disabled and elderly women are also vulnerable to violence and yet they struggle to access justice and must endure the constant weight of additional prejudice and discrimination. These are daily realities for women yet on the day that we commemorate their struggle as a nation, to speak of it is “a stain”.
Rape Crisis members participate in a 2014 Women’s Day march
On Women’s Day in South Africa women are celebrated as sisters, mothers and daughters. In other words, in relation to the roles they play with regard to men. Where violence against women is addressed, men are called upon to protect women from harm in a way that portrays women as weak. Men who abuse women are called animals or monsters rather than Bill Cosby or Bob Hewitt. They are not seen as men who can be well liked and admired and still be a rapist.
Retailers make money and sponsors get involved in cause relating marketing on Women’s Day. When money is at stake the fear of being too radical or anti-men takes priority. Celebrations are often sentimental and patronising, idealising women as carers and role models as if, as opinionista Marelise Van der Merwe put it in an article in 2012, “women have some magical, inherent strength that we have to that we have to light sparklers for on Women’s Day” and profess to be dazzled by. Small wonder some men ask why we don’t celebrate Men’s Day.
Government also comes under criticism for celebrating hollow victories – a Council on Gender Based Violence that never really got off the ground. Or the fact that South Africa is a signatory to the international Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and yet the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women has been forced to cancel her country visit to South Africa because officials simply didn’t respond to her requests for dates to be confirmed. In August last year the Department of Social Development published its Programme of Action on Violence Against Women and Children. This was developed by an Inter-Ministerial Committee in the wake of public outrage after the brutal rape and murder of Bredasdorp teenager Annene Booysen in February 2013 and took 18 months to develop. It is an ambitious multi layered, multi stakeholder plan – with no budget. Much like government’s plan to roll out specialised Sexual Offences Courts across the country.
We need to be campaigning for or educating on women’s rights on Women’s Day – and the women who need the day the most must be touched by it. We need to take or demand real action and strong coverage of the glaring issues facing women. We need to challenge those who infantilise women or valorise stereotypical gender roles. We also need to challenge those who sanctify women as victims of violence, making them innocent of all human vice and thus robbing them of their basic humanity. In this sense I agree with our publicist friend. We need to tell stories of women’s strength and resilience. We need to challenge public perceptions of women as weak, as subordinate to men, as objects of men’s desire.
Rape Crisis peer educators aged 14 – 17 complete a thirteen week programme that equips them with tactics and techniques for redefining gender stereotypes as a way of challenging violence against women and promoting safety in their schools. Come and see them sing and dance at the Artscape Theatre’s Women’s Humanity Festival on Sunday 9 August 2015 and sign up to support an organisation that works all year round to recognise, uphold and defend women’s right to live free from violence.
Find out more about our activities on Women’s Day here!
Kathleen Dey is the Director of the Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust