The difficulty of dealing with gender-based violence

How do you unsettle, unlearn and undo gender based violence? Many conversations have been had and hopefully, will continue to be had about the subject. It’s often easy to walk away feeling dizzy and hopeless at the realisation of how multifaceted the subject is and wondering where to begin in order to move forward. Panelists Catriona Mcleod, Gorata Chengeta, Lisa Vetten, Nadine Joseph and Nonhle Skosana discussed why sexual violence continues to be such a difficult subject to tackle.


The Criminal Justice System

Police and the criminal justice system play a large role in the problem of sexual assault. For victims in particular, so much is dependent upon the way in which police and the courts handle rape cases.

Vetten referred to documents which state that for adult women there is a very high rate of (reported) stranger rape in South Africa, yet those are the rape cases that the police perform worst on. “That has a lot to do I think with police capacity. So for me one of the concerns that we seem to have lost sight of in the past five or six years is a focus on the state,” she says.

She notes that because performance bonuses are tied to reducing crime, pressure is put on the police to reduce the number of rapes that are reported, not actually perpetrated.

“I think we need performance incentives in the courts to increase the number of convictions. What the data is suggesting is a certain amount of cherry picking, so the ‘best’ and strongest cases are going through and the cases requiring more work being dropped. This in a perverse way creates incentives for rape to continue and you are not acting sufficiently as a deterrent.”

Skosana adds that law enforcement officers’ idea of crime fighting is too narrow to accommodate intimate crimes such as sexual assault. She stresses that the immediate handling of rape cases by police shows a lack of sensitivity training.

“They think that just putting a female officer in front to deal with somebody coming in is just enough but they don’t understand that even that female officer themselves can lack training and therefore extend patriarchal or misogynistic tendencies and ways of dealing with a victim when they’re coming forward”

Institutions such as the university also respond poorly to reported rape, making it difficult to undo gender based violence. “One of the biggest issues we’re having and we’re continuing to have is that management or the way that the institution has been structured is not willing to learn or to shape itself or to restructure itself in a way where it helps survivors,” says Skosana.

A particularly major issue is the issue of the victim holding the burden of providing proof. “Shifting of burden to perpetrator will never happen in criminal justice systems,” Vetten says. She adds that a way forward might be to think about alternative forms of justice such as reparative and restorative justice without implying that they are lesser than criminal justice. “Most victims do not want to go the criminal justice route. It’s about how do we try to think differently and not always go for the usual solution?” Vetten suggests looking at history as well as making local comparisons to make links regarding what might be a useful way to go forward.

Rape Culture and Toxic Masculinity

The issue of toxic masculinity often arises as an explanation behind why rape culture is happening. Mcleod offers an interesting perspective on the subject. She states that rape is not rape of the female but rape of the feminine, and this includes women, children, older people, people who are non-gender conforming and so on; “people who actually occupy a position of less power,” she says.

She refers to a ‘female fear factory’ which is described in Pumla Gqola’s book Rape.

I restrict my movements according to how I judge a particular situation and I behave in particular ways depending on which space I am in and how I judge the possibilities of threat to my body and so what that’s really about actually is about the maintenance of a particular patriarchal type of power.

“Part of the intractability of rape and sexual violence in SA has to do with the fact that it serves a useful purpose of controlling all of the feminine in our country,” adds Mcleod. “People actually benefit from what we would call the patriarchal dividend or the sexual violence dividend because it allows the entire feminine population to be regulated.”

Rape is therefore not an incident but a result of everyday life and social dynamics. Tackling this therefore involves tracing back to what we have internalised and rethinking those things that are deeply embedded in society. Mcleod notes that such change is often met with resistance and defense mechanisms, making it difficult to achieve. A good place to start, she notes, is through a sexual education for young learners that goes beyond the limited and often moralistic approach targeted mostly at female learners that is presently used in many schools.

Theory vs. Action

Vetten notes that there is a pattern of “amnesia and repetition” in South Africa whereby the topic of gender based violence in South Africa has been brought to the fore by events and shortly after forgotten.

She argued that creating institutions that focus on dealing with gender based violence can be useful but can also slow things down.”Once something is institutionalised, people think they can tick the box […].Very often the things we design with good intentions get taken up in very strange ways,” she says.

“I think that what we also tend to do, especially as academics or as intellects and people in environments of education, is that we over-theorise the situation,” says Skosana. “The reason we’re not able to understand or figure out the problem of rape I think, is that we need to strike a balance. We also need to look at the lived experience, reality,what is going on on the ground… we can’t blanket things.. we need to understand that it’s complex and nuanced but we also have to think about the bodies that we speak of,” Skosana added.

Vetten however notes that theory and action are strongly linked. She states that theory is necessary in order to take proper action in order to be certain that through action, the problem is not being reproduced.

“The more conscious we become about gender violence and rape, the more hopeless people feel because we see it’s systemic, it’s so complex,” says an audience member.

The panel reassured the audience that feeling hopeless can be productive, and starting from a position where you acknowledge that the problem is very difficult to deal with will lead to less disappointment. Skosana noted that her hopelessness is what allows her to appreciate the smallest victories.


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