via Searching my soul this Sixteen Days – The Zimbabwean 23.11.2015
It’s Sixteen Days again and I am in trepidation.
The media, who largely forget about us during the year, will be upon us with their incessant, last minute requests for sound bites on what this period from 25 November (International Day of No Violence Against Women) to 10 December (Human Rights Day) actually means.
It’s been that way since we started the campaign ten years ago. Is there anything new to say? 2015 has come and it’s almost gone. In 2008, Southern African Development Community (SADC) Heads of State signed the Protocol on Gender and Development, vowing to halve gender violence by 2015.
Six SADC countries have undertaken prevalence cum attitude surveys to measure how far we have come. These surveys tell us that women’s lifetime experiences of gender violence vary from one in four in Mauritius to four in five in Lesotho. Clearly we are nowhere near halving gender violence.
In October, a task team met to realign the targets of the SADC Gender Protocol to the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) that for the first time put gender violence on the global agenda. We have shifted the goal posts to 2030. We now talk about “reducing” gender violence, without daring to put a figure on it.
In my personal life, two unrelated incidents have made me step back as I prepare psychologically for the campaign. Recently, I experienced the efficiency of South African systems in responding to a trumped up case of animal rights abuse and it made me wonder why our systems are so lack lustre when it comes to women’s rights abuses.
I happened at the time, and now, to be grappling with a case of domestic abuse close to my chest in which as an activist and friend I have found myself sorely wanting.
First: the case of the dog. A fortnight ago I took my dog Gigi for a walk as I usually do on a Saturday morning that turned out to be unusually hot. On turning the corner onto a busy road, Gigi decided she was tired, sat down and refused to budge. No amount of coaxing (I had two litres of water) would change her mind. As I could not leave her in the road to go and fetch my car, I did my best to push, pull and cajole us to a security guard I knew so I could do the necessary.
Lo and behold while doing so a woman in a posh car slowed down and started calling me an abuser and called the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA). Offering no practical help, she stalked me all the way to the security guard, and parked her car for 45 minutes while I walked in the blazing sun to go and fetch my car, that the dog happily jumped into.
To my surprise, by the next day, I had received a visit from the SPCA, threatening legal action for crimes as yet unnamed. The case blew over but the questions did not. I asked both the SPCA and the over- zealous complainant if they would have gone to the same lengths had this been a woman in need. I am awaiting an answer.
My friend’s case weighed heavily on me at the time. Hers is one of the most common yet unacknowledged forms of gender violence: years and years of emotional and verbal abuse. According to the research we have conducted in six countries, emotional, psychological and verbal abuse constitutes 40 to 50% percent of the violence experienced by women in a lifetime. Yet nowhere do we find this recorded in police statistics.
The effects, however, are devastating. Mental and physical illness interlock in a vicious negative cycle. They reflect most directly in number of days work lost (I can confirm that in the case of my friend we are talking several weeks this past year). Indirectly, emotional abuse erodes the sense of agency, of self- worth, so key to human development. Ultimately the costs reflect in career opportunities lost, and economies missing out on these vital contributions that women could be making.
Four years ago I stepped in to help my friend’s husband with a loan to complete a course so he could get a better job, hoping that financial relief would bring some joy on the home front. I miscalculated: more money resulted in greater consumption of alcohol and even more abuse. So I, a gender activist, seem to have aggravated the situation: a painful lesson.
In this case and in our work I have reached the conclusion that ending violence starts with empowering women. I helped my friend to get a job and I have tried to support her professional growth. I am so happy that she has finally found the courage to go to court. I am praying that our systems will work for her in the same way they work for animal rights.
One thing that is new about our campaign is that this year we started the Sixteen Days a week early – on 19 November Women’s Entrepreneurship Day. On this day, we celebrated the 1500 survivors of gender violence who have reclaimed their lives through a unique combination of life skills and better business suss. As we gather evidence of what has changed in their lives, we find that a number of abusive partners have reconciled with these women, now that they are in a stronger position to negotiate their own space within relationships.
What this tells us is that ending violence should not be a zero sum game. Win-win solutions are possible, if only we start where we should: with the survivors of violence, and the attitudes of our societies.
As we look to the next fifteen years, what we need is not more of the same, but a big shift in how we think, act, and whom we target. If women are at the heart of the problem, they should also be at the heart of the solutions. Post 2015, we need a combination of voice, choice and control for women to direct their own destinies.
(Colleen Lowe Morna is CEO of Gender Links. This article is written in her personal capacity as part of a special series for the Sixteen Days of Activism being produced by the Gender Links New Service).