By Lisa Vetten
You’ve been shocked by the statistics, outraged by the harrowing interviews on radio and television, horrified by the ineptitude of the criminal justice system and moved by the trauma – last year and the year before, as well as the year before` that and even the year preceding that. So perhaps that’s why the 16 Days of Activism to End Violence Against Women are starting to take on a somewhat dull and tattered edge – as if we have run out of steam because it’s all been said before, done before and heard before. In a strange way, the initial success of the campaign is playing a role in its decline.
Non-governmental organisations have been marking the 16 Days since at least 1992 while government began supporting the campaign in 1999.
Then rape, domestic violence and intimate femicide were still new issues with the power to shock people into action. Shock however, wears off while outrage and horror cannot be sustained indefinitely.
Indeed, we seem to have got stuck at this point, with the repetition of traumatic events serving only to numb.
Particular thresholds have been established to create a hierarchy of horror, with only the most brutal of acts attracting attention and rendering the less savage ordinary in comparison.
Focusing on the all-too common failures of the criminal justice system also leaves people helpless and thinking there is nothing they can do about abuse.
Perhaps that’s why saving the environment looks so much more doable. There are many nice practical steps that anyone can take to contribute to saving the world, like installing a solar geyser, or using fewer plastic bags and recycling glass and paper.
The response to violence against women is less practical and tends to consist of slogans like “act against abuse, don’t look away and speak out”.
These sound good but offer little direction around what should happen once we’ve looked and seen, or women have spoken.
So at the risk of sounding like another sloganeer, here might be some ways to put the “act” back into the activism of the 16 Days.
The debacle at Jules High School suggests many starting points for parents who should demand to know what training teachers, school management and school governing bodies have received around the 2007 Sexual Offences Act.
Communities can play their part via community policing forums and finding out if the police stations serving them have been audited by the Independent Complaints Directorate for compliance with the Domestic Violence Act.
The business sector has a role too to play.
It would be fascinating to know how much corporate social investment goes into addressing the problem of violence against women, as well as the extent to which companies link up with domestic violence shelters to provide skills training and job opportunities to women.
There’s also the question of how they deal with men’s retrenchment. Being a breadwinner and provider is central to many men’s sense of identity and self-worth. Loss of a job, which is particularly likely in the current economic climate, can be a devastating and emasculating blow for which some men compensate by becoming more controlling and domineering at home.
How could companies planning layoffs deal with this? This could be something trade unions also take up.
At a more personal level, we could all ask ourselves if we are good neighbours. When there is shouting and screaming from next door, do we investigate?
From Tshwaranang’s interviews with women who have been abused, it is often these everyday acts of kindness and concern that make the difference to women’s lives, whether it is calling the police or passing on the number of a local shelter or counselling service.
The 16 Days cannot undo a lifetime’s worth of socialisation into sexism and misogyny. They can, however, offer an opportunity to reflect on the other 349 days to assess what has been done, what can be learnt and what is required in future. This review is for all of us – not government alone.
This article was first published on Sowetan.
Lisa Vetten is a director of the Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre ( a Shukumisa partner).