Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu. Picture: FINANCIAL MAIL
Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu. Picture: FINANCIAL MAIL

IT DEEPLY concerns us that patriarchy has been brought back to the mainstream and seems to be supported, if not promoted, by the state agenda, ironically through a campaign that is designed to address the scourge of gender-based violence.

Last Thursday, the Ministry of Women in the Presidency held a meeting in Ekurhuleni to announce its plans for the 16 Days of Activism for No Violence against Women and Children campaign.

The ministry’s theme focused on engaging men and boys to stand up against violence by saying: "Count Me In." We acknowledge and support the need to engage men in the fight against gender-based violence and applaud the ministry’s desire to broaden the movement as widely as possible. Unfortunately, the language the ministry used during the launching of this campaign reinforced a range of patriarchal ideas that we as organisations that support a gender-equal society have fought against for years.

"Men are supposed to be protectors of society. Men are supposed to be protectors of families. We need to bring back these protectors of society. We need to mobilise our protectors," Minister for Women Susan Shabangu said in opening. She added that women could not be victims any more and needed to "get their confidence back".

As Nandi Msezane from the Ecumenical Service for Socio-Economic Transformation (Esset) expressed directly to the minister: "We need to be aware of the language used as it comes from a very patriarchal standpoint. Men need to protect us? With language such as this, women are being infantilised, moving the women’s movement backwards."

She also noted: "What about women in same-sex relationships? LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender/transexual and intersexed) individuals? Are we not women too?"

The minister also invited Mpumalanga Chief Moses M Mahlangu to share his comments. The chief spoke passionately about his belief that women must be submissive to their husbands. Princess Dineo from North West stood up to tell us that feminism is un-African and encouraged the minister to cut all funds for centres for abused women and children, as they should be dealing with these issues at home.

Both speakers received nods from the minister on the dais and applause from the audience. Others followed decrying women’s abuse of men and women’s aggression as the biggest challenges. These were deeply discriminatory statements that continue to fuel the very gender-based violence that the meeting sought to address.

The minister closed the opening session, noting the diversity of opinions expressed and that we must value diversity as it is protected in the South African constitution.

Although diversity should be respected, the minister has an obligation to ensure that diverse views expressed at an official government event do not promote the violation of rights of women and children. Diversity cannot be upheld above the right to equality.

In the midst of an epidemic of gender-based violence unparalleled almost anywhere else in the world, in a moment when we are desperate for leadership, for vision and strategy, we instead are delivered destructive discourse and no clear roadmap for progress.

Patriarchy is not an abstraction or a theoretical concern, as stated by the minister. Research shows that there are many drivers of gender-based violence, from childhood exposure to violence to alcohol abuse, but there is particularly strong evidence that patriarchal societal and individual norms around gender and masculinity are associated with higher levels of violence.

That a South African woman is murdered by an intimate partner every eight hours is not an abstraction. Nearly 50,000 sexual offences reported a year are not theoretical concerns. We know that underreporting among adult women probably ranges from one in nine to one in 25 rapes being reported. Thus it is possible that as many as 400,000-1,000,000 rapes occur a year in SA.

The women injured and killed in this violence are not only family members and caretakers, they are also entrepreneurs, workers and managers. Every rape or incidence of domestic violence is not only an assault on the dignity and human rights of women, but also a threat to their participation in the economy. If Shabangu is concerned with women’s economic empowerment, if the Zuma administration wants to hit their targeted 5% growth rate, this is a threat they can’t ignore.

One of the few rational things we heard from the podium last week was Shabangu’s statement that "this violence we have also drives away money from our economy". KPMG recently released a report showing that the economic cost of gender-based violence in SA was between R28.4bn and R42.4bn for the 2012-13 year. Even having used a conservative model to calculate the estimate, this still accounts for roughly 1% of gross domestic product (GDP) annually. If legal obligations, human rights and human decency won’t push government to act, perhaps the economic cost of gender-based violence will finally spur the action we need.

Activists at the meeting reminded Shabangu of the department’s previous commitment to design a national strategic plan on gender-based violence. But we received no response, no answers on the status of the National Council on Gender-Based Violence, which has been "under review" for six months. We received no public commitment on the National Strategic Plan, which will be essential in stemming our country’s epidemic of violence.

We wish to state that our presence at the meeting should in no way be inferred to mean that we approve of the 16 Days Campaign or the strategy employed by the ministry. The meeting in no way reflected the spirit of consultative engagement. We therefore call on all sectors of South African society to challenge this neo-patriarchal framing, and to demand a plan from government. As part of this growing national campaign, we, along with dozens of partners across the country, will host a National Day of Action on November 25 to launch our own 16 Days campaign to demand a national plan to end gender-based violence from government. Join us.

While civil society was invited to a "consultation", we arrived to find a plan for 16 Days that was already finalised and approved by Cabinet. Representation of civil society organisations at the meeting was limited to those that could afford to bear the high cost of travel, so many rural community-based organisations were excluded from the process.

The authors represent the following groups:

• Jabu Tugwana, People Opposing Women Abuse (Powa);

• Nondumiso Nsibande, Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre;

• Katie Bollbach, Sonke Gender Justice; and

• Nandi Msezane, Ecumenical Service for Socio-Economic Transformation (Esset).

This statement is supported by: Port Elizabeth Rape Crisis Centre; Project Empower, South African Faith and Family Institute, Nacosa, South African National AIDS Council Women’s Sector, Sekwele Centre for Social Reflection, New World Foundation and Thohoyandou Victim Empowerment Programme.