Anyone who followed the Jacob Zuma rape trial in 2006 soon became familiar with the sight of groups of women outside the courtroom, wearing purple t-shirts and bearing placards calling for justice.
“The campaign was born there, because the woman who had laid the charge was one of our clients and we supported her,” explains Kwezilomso Ndazayo, project officer for the campaign. “The research shows that only one woman in nine will take a rape case to the criminal justice system – we realized that those who dared to speak out needed our support.”
For many women, the cost of seeing a rape case through the criminal justice system is just too high – particularly as conviction rates are so low. “Many women say that the court process makes it feel as if they are being raped again. This secondary victimization often begins from the minute they set foot in a police station or hospital, particularly if they are from a marginalized group such as lesbians or poor working class women. The conviction rate is so appalling that many survivors see no point in subjecting themselves to a process that can take five years, if they have no faith in getting a conviction.”
Part of the problem is the “innocent victim” discourse often played out in the media, in which any woman who is a lesbian, HIV positive, who drinks alcohol or has ever engaged in consensual sex is seen as blameworthy and not deserving of respect and compassion, not to mention justice. “For example, there has been a lot of research looking at how violence against women puts them at risk of contracting HIV. Now we are looking at it from another angle: how does being HIV positive put women at risk of violence?”
Kwezilomso says the Zuma case raised numerous issues about HIV, sexuality and culture and helped members of the campaign to see that not only should they continue but that they needed to broaden their approach. “Just because the other eight women don’t follow the justice system route, it doesn’t mean they are not speaking out in other ways.”
In a society that has normalized the abnormal and which appears complacent about the extraordinarily high level of violence against women and children, the members of the campaign are determined to keep speaking out. “Its important that we having voices that point out that this is not an acceptable state for women to be living in. It also helps survivors by affirming that this is not normal. At the same time we are aware of the consequences of women speaking truth to power and are careful not to endanger members of the campaign.”
One in Nine is a member-based campaign that does advocacy in a variety of ways, from running Young Women’s Leadership programmes across the provinces, to courses with the CDP on Art as Advocacy where women create their own campaign materials such as t-shirts and banners. “We are currently compiling a guide written for rape survivors by survivors. This is important, as most other guides are written by academics or activists, but only survivors who have themselves have been through the system can tell them what to expect.”
Kwezilomso also points out that while the criminal justice system is the most obvious symbol of the failure to protect women, there are many other sites of power that have an impact on women’s lives, ranging from Parliament to the health system to the police force. “The state needs to be held accountable for issues like the backlog in the justice system, and we encourage active citizenship to ensure that duty bearers do what they are supposed to do. But the entire system is stacked against women. “Even if there was a different government in office, the same system would remain. The state is a tool of control, to put people in their place and shut them up. The bigger question is how we transform society, from the bottom right up to the highest office in the land.”
The 16 Days of Activism campaign has come in for a lot of criticism, and some activists believe it has been hijacked by government and does little but provide public relations opportunities for ministers who promptly forget about the issues come January.
“Perhaps as a sector we need to spend more time assessing the impact of the 16 Days, but I wouldn’t call for it to be scrapped entirely. Of course there are probably too many fancy dinners, but each platform provides us an opportunity to engage and try to create positive change. And if the nature of some of these events is problematic, then we should use the opportunity to shine a light on that. The good thing about 16 Days is that it gets the issues out into the open and allows people a space to start talking about them.”
Despite the activism of many campaigners, rates of violence against women and children in South Africa continue to rise. While we have progressive legislation and a one of the best Constitutions in the world, it seems our society is out of step with the values it professes to hold.
Is there a future for these campaigns? “Obviously this is not going to change overnight, and maybe in 50 years time South Africa will be a better place for women and children. But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying. It is very important that we continue to speak and be heard and ensure that South Africans understand this is not the kind of society they want to live in.”