August is Women’s Month in South Africa, a time when we pause to remember the sacrifices of women in the past, to build bridges in the present to ensure a better society for women in the future. It is important, however, to remember the stark realities that we face as women in South Africa and on the continent and around the world.
The situation around the world throws up a grim picture. According the World Health Organisation, 24% of girls aged 15 – 19 have experienced intimate partner violence. The prevalence of sexual violence against girls and women cannot be underscored. SAPS statistics show that on average 115 women are raped every day in South Africa (SAPS Report 2021). This is made more alarming by the fact that we know that many rapes go unreported so the actual figure is higher than that.
The numbers belie the reality that behind every statistic is a girl or women who has the unimaginable trauma of sexual violence. There is no place to be safe: work, neighbourhoods and homes are places of potential threat. This has a dramatic effect on the physical, psychological and emotional well-being of women.
Studies have shown that the prolonged exposure to stress and trauma have adverse effects on a person’s health. Children exposed to trauma are more likely to develop illnesses such as diabetes, strokes, cancer, heart disease, and chronic lower respiratory disease. In addition, they are more likely to have problematic drug use, major depression and attempt suicide. It can also lead to developmental and learning problems if unattended.
Given the ubiquitous threat that women face, we are constantly in survival mode. Our sense of safety (or lack thereof) is experienced in every facet of life. The constant need to be vigilant about our safety takes its toll on our emotional well-being as well. Trauma that is continuing or unaddressed (or both) can lead to emotional problems such as feeling numb, have trouble feeling emotions, or being emotionally detached. It manifests itself in behaviours such as having difficulty looking after one’s self, holding down a job, trusting others, maintaining friendships or relationships, remembering things and making decisions, coping with change or simply enjoying leisure time. The cumulative effect over time can be debilitating.
As we embark on this month of remembering, we would do well to consider that safety is not the only threat that women face. In sub-Saharan Africa, women earn on average 30% less than men. This means that women are in a particularly precarious position in society. Not only is our labour not valued as highly as men’s, the practical implication is that women are more vulnerable to economic hardship than their male counterparts. In a county such as South Africa, the economic divide is seen as the greatest challenge to reconciliation (South African Barometer 2021).
For us as a country to be fully reconciled we need to address both the racial and gendered nature of inequality. An unescapable legacy of the past is the way in which race and patriarchy have been embedded in the systems and institutions in our society. As intentionally as they were woven into the fabric of our society, so intentionally we need to dismantle them.
The unrelenting waves of patriarchy can cause us to be exhausted and tempted to give up. There is, however, hope. The edifice of injustice is being chipped away. Every law, every policy and every action taken to promote justice for women takes us a step closer to the goal of a world where women can say: “Free at last, Free at last, Thank God almighty we are free at last.”
Head: Sustained Dialogues Programme
The views and opinions expressed in the article are solely that of the author, and not the IJR.