Gender-based violence: a continuum through womxn’s lives

By Published On: 10th September 2018

There is a prevailing assumption that sexual and gender-based violence in situations of conflict is an isolated phenomenon that ensues at the outbreak of conflict within a country, and that it will recede organically during and post the country’s transition to democracy.

This is untrue. And it is misleading to assume that gendered violence during and post turmoil are unrelated to pre-existing gender dynamics, social orientations or other forms and norms of preceding gendered violence. Where cultures and traditions of sexual and gender-based violence exist prior to warfare and transition, it will be exacerbated during warfare and will not evanesce naturally during or after transition.

The types of violence committed against womxn in the past has direct and indirect links to levels of sexual and gender-based violence committed against womxn today.

The relationship between South Africa’s colonial and apartheid legacy and the current scenario of unchecked sexual and gender-based violence is yet to be thoroughly unpacked and interrogated.

South Africa’s history is marred by brutality where violence was used as a legitimate means to acquire power, assert interests and address conflict. The normalisation of violence constructed a society in which violence became a mode of communication. It became a norm. The violent ideology and aggressive enforcement of apartheid stripped black people of their rights and human dignity, and achieved this in significantly gendered ways. Dominant patriarchal constructions of masculinity under apartheid, in collaboration with white supremacist ideology, and in addition with womxn’s inferior position in South Africa, effortlessly facilitated the gross violations committed against their bodies.

Yet the existent gender hierarchy meant that sexual and gender-based violence committed against womxn during apartheid was not perceived as a political mechanism of subjugation or terror. Instead it was framed as a side problem to the main struggle for political emancipation and black men’s right to self-determination.

Sexual and gender-based violence was viewed and understood as a womxn’s issue, and womxn’s positionality within conservative South Africa meant that the violence inflicted on them was confined to the private sphere, unable to penetrate the political arena. Our struggle narrative failed to acknowledge womxn’s bodies and sexualities as having been sites of political or cultural capital, and it having been a human terrain of struggle for men in their fight for power and control.

The discourse during and subsequent to our democratic transition did not consider sexual violence as an extension of and intersecting with other forms of oppression, such as race or class. Instead the privilege given to acts of political violence, while viewing gender as secondary, served to cloak our history in half-truths rather than illuminate the gendered acts and effects as having been intrinsically political, and necessary to understanding the myriad manifestations of violence under apartheid.

After South Africa’s transition to democracy, the then government established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to investigate “…the nature, causes and extent of gross violations of human rights” committed within or outside the country during the period from March 1960- May 1994.

Njabulo Ndebele, present chancellor of the University of Johannesburg, at the time characterised the TRC as a movement “from repression to expression”. There was an expectation that the womxn’s hearings itself would recover womxn’s actual role and perspective, not only as victims or survivors of apartheid atrocities, but as human beings and social actors within the political landscape.

During the two years of the TRC’s operation, it held three “special hearings” on womxn in three metro cities across South Africa for womxn to talk about the specific violations they had suffered under apartheid. The limitations of the TRC’s hearings and where these hearings were located, the constrained time and paltry resources it had, meant that the commission’s report ultimately separated womxn’s lived realities from the body politic when it should have mainstreamed gender throughout.

The TRC’s ad-hoc approach to gender relegated womxn’s experiences to the periphery, and as a consequence of its myopic mandate focused almost explicitly on political injustices. The TRC’s hierarchy of human rights violence consequently muted womxn’s voices and portrayed them as passive onlookers to violence. Black men and womxn experienced apartheid’s violence differently because of their prescribed gender roles. The means of torture and violence used against black womxn were different from men’s in that it was explicitly directed at womxn’s femininity and sexuality.

During the hearings womxn spoke of their experiences relating to harassment, detention, incarceration, kidnapping, torture, rape, genital mutilation, and the multitude of psychological, emotional and financial suffering each of the abovementioned inflicted on their lives and the lives of those dependant on them. Patriarchy, in collaboration with hostile misogyny, legitimised the toxic brand of masculinity that executed sexual and gender-based violence against womxn and other gender identities that deviated from its rigidly dichotomous social script. Patriarchy still today, as the foundation upon which South Africa is founded and sustained, allows for sexual and gender-based violence to go unacknowledged and unaddressed. And the effects of this unacknowledged and ‘privatised’ gendered issue has meant that violence committed against womxn today are merely a continuum of the violence committed against womxn in our history.

Applying a gendered lens is imperative to holistically understanding our past political violence and confronting the continuing violations. Political apartheid ended only 24 years ago; there are womxn who were tortured then that are still alive today; policemen who committed violence then are still alive today. Within this environment of physical and psychological trauma, the process of rebuilding our society requires us to create the necessary safe(r) spaces and platforms for survivors across the country to access catharsis, support and healing through orating their stories and experiences.

South Africa cannot enter a state of post-conflict until it confronts the gendered violence of its past and how the nature of this violence persists today in alarmingly high levels of sexual and gender-based violence. The positive peace that our nation strives for must include more encompassing definitions relating to gender than just the stability of the state.

Danielle Hoffmeester

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