South Africa

OP-ED: You strike the woman, you (still) strike the rock

Everywhere I look, I see signs of South Africa’s efforts in the fight against gender-based violence and its readiness to do even more. The same spirit behind the powerful mantra of South Africa’s women in ‘You strike the woman, you strike the rock’ is alive.

I am privileged to have witnessed this sheer force of will that breeds hope of equality, freedom and better experiences for half this nation’s population. In August 2018, women took to the streets in Pretoria to demand that they are heard on combating gender-based violence. In November 2018, South Africa hosted the continent’s first Gender-Based Violence and Femicide conference, where its president said:

We want to reach a point where no woman, child or man has to experience the violence, violation and trauma of rape. There is no acceptable level of gender-based violence. We want to eradicate it.”

One wonders why the women of South Africa had to wait this long to be heard, their vulnerability publicly recognised and their anger addressed. As we learnt in 2018, however, this is not unique to South Africa. Women all over the world took to various media platforms to share their stories. I think the momentum in the country right now is exactly where it should be to move the dial rapidly forward in addressing this scourge.

Global figures of women who experience violence are staggering — more than one in three women have experienced violence in their lifetime — that’s 700 million women, or close to the total population of sub-Saharan Africa. Here in South Africa, sexual violence rates remain exceptionally high. As we finish observing the 16 days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, I want to reaffirm the US Government’s commitment to working with South Africa to end the violence that disproportionately affects women and girls. We know that investment in addressing gender-based violence works here in South Africa, and we hope that South Africa can be a leader in its eradication.

We’ve been engaging with South Africans in this area for more than 10 years. In 2018 alone, USAID invested approximately R70-million to raise awareness, improve services for survivors of violence, strengthen prevention efforts, and collect data that will feed into more effective programming. USAID was one of the first supporters of the Thuthuzela Care Centres (TCCs), the same centres that President Cyril Ramaphosa has committed to fund without USAID resources. We have always been proud of this strong partnership with the South African Government, where USAID assisted in the establishment and refurbishment of 49 out of the current 55 TCCs. These centres were transferred to the South African Government over time and are now budgeted as part of the government’s annual planning.

It’s not just numbers, though. I hear stories of USAID’s investment improving lives. Teresa Nelson from Diepsloot, a township north of Johannesburg, recently told the Centre for Communication Impact (CCI), a USAID-funded partner:

As a child, my uncle raped me constantly… Every time I reported it to my grandmother, she hit me and said I don’t know what I’m talking about. But I knew.”

After running away from home, Nelson again became the victim of abuse at the hands of a boyfriend who beat and raped her and then also beat their baby. The CCI program facilitator helped Nelson to find a job, change her life and leave her abusive relationship.

While this progress gives me hope, South Africa still has a long way to go. Statistics from the 2017 “Sexual Violence in Schools in South Africa” study brings home the shocking reality that we need to redouble our efforts. The study confirmed what we read daily: Sexual violence against South African children is high, and the children remain silent about it. One-fifth of children in the study indicated that they had been forced to have sex with someone out of fear. This data is alarming as schools are supposed to be safe.

As the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence came to a close on 10 December, we must reaffirm the conviction that women’s and girls’ lives matter. We must ensure that every step women and girls have made toward a changed society is applauded, that they are valuable and equal members of society, and that the children of this nation will grow up in safety and security, fully able to live out their potential as the future generation of world leaders.

If we remain silent on gender-based violence, it will imply complicity to shattered lives, broken dreams and continuing the cycle of decades of abuse. USAID will be here as your partner, continuing to invest in big and small ways in helping to improve South African society.

USAID will continue to support the South African Government, civil society, communities and the private sector in their fight against gender-based violence, to enable communities to develop their own solutions and enable the country to use its own resources more effectively, thereby stimulating development for the most disadvantaged sections of the population.

Nelson Mandela said, “…freedom cannot be achieved unless the women have been emancipated from all forms of oppression”. In celebration of his centenary year, I join the young women and girls of South Africa, I join the men who stand with them, and I join the president in his commitment to ensuring that “there is no acceptable level of gender-based violence” here in South Africa. DM

John Groarke is USAID Southern Africa mission director.

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