Cape Town, 10.04.2006: Demonstrators outside parliament called for an end to violence against women adn children and for the immeidate passage of the Sexual Offences Bill. Non-government organisations fed up with the long dealy in passing the Sexual Offences Bill have given the justice department an ultimatum, demanding that it say within a month when it is to be finalised. They want a written statement saying when the bill is to be released for public comment and giving the time frame for its implementation. Picture Henk Kruger/Story Zeninjor Enwemeka

When planning the romance this Valentine’s, let’s spare a thought for those who have died in the name of love, writes Joy Watson.

Cape Town - February 14 marks Valentine’s Day, the day where across the globe, a billion-dollar industry is fed in celebrating normative, and predominantly heterosexual, constructions of romantic love.

South Africa has one of the highest rates of reported rapes in the world. High levels of sexual and domestic violence have become an integral part of our social norms, with almost a million contact crimes against women having been reported to the police over the past few years.

A few weeks ago, a nine-year-old-girl was raped and left for dead in Delft.

Given the low conviction rate for rape – only 6.97 percent among the cases reported – the message is clear: most rapists are not convicted and if one is, he can count himself an exception to the norm.

Yet for the victim, while the physical effects of rape and other forms of gender-based violence may dissipate with time, the psychological and emotional trauma will, in all likelihood, remain with her for the rest of her life. Once a human being has been subjected to torture by another, their sense of being safe in the world will not again be intact. That the inflicting of cruelty is a choice and that someone has set out intentionally to hurt you changes forever your sense of being secure.

Many perpetrators locate gender-based violence within a twisted version of a romantic framework.

Views such as: “She wanted it, she asked for it. How could she not want sex when she was wearing such a short skirt?” are commonplace in the perpetrator’s narrative in abdicating responsibility for violence.

Attempts are often made to construe the victim’s response as approving behaviour, to translate forcible rape into romantic seduction, an account that not only frames cruelty, but enables it.

The challenge then becomes how to move the debate on gender-based violence from being about women as victims and keeping them safe, to one that deals with the constructs of masculinity that make such violence possible.

Studies carried out by the Medical Research Council show that 27.6 percent of men interviewed in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal and 37 percent of those interviewed in Gauteng admitted to having raped someone.

Yet many South Africans have become desensitised to the horror of rape and gender-based violence. It has become so much a part of the prevailing social norm that there seems to be a sense of sensory fatigue in response to the many stories that are told.

This is a serious indictment of our society and it is time to assess how we can take a collective social stand and say “Hands off women’s bodies!”

Valentine’s Day, with its reinforcement of gendered roles in relationships, is an ideal time to found or join such a movement.

The One Billion Rising Against Sexual Violence or V-Day campaign, which takes place today, is one opportunity for taking an activist stance. The campaign was launched last year as a worldwide call to end violence against women and children.

Based on the statistic that one in every three women will be raped or beaten, the campaign is an attempt to get a billion people across the globe to form part of an activist movement to end gender-based violence.

It involves protests or “risings” that take the form of art, dance, marches, flash mobs and story circles. Some of the events in Cape Town will include silent protests outside the courts in Mitchells Plain, Bellville and Bishop Lavis on today.

Women from the Cederberg, George, Worcester and the Klapmuts regions are to congregate at the Cape Town Civic Centre and march to the Western Cape High Court.

With the theme, “The State of Justice for Gender-based Violence”, the protest will focus on demanding justice for victims.

Other aspects of the campaign include the hosting of an interfaith discussion by the Claremont Main Road Mosque, the creation of opportunities for men to come together and frame their responses as men, and storytelling circles for victims of gender-based violence.

The campaign is one example of the potential power of spreading a message that we all have a role to play in questioning, confronting and subverting the social order that makes violence against women thrive.

South Africa is in a state of crisis insofar as violence against women and girls is concerned.

We live in an innately violent context, so much so that our views on what constitutes force and violence have been somewhat affected.

The more horrific the act of violence, the more likely we are to sit up and take notice.

Sadly, we have become less responsive to psychological aggression and subtle intimidation and the day-to-day power interplays in relationships that create the social context where more brutal displays of violence become possible.

Many of our men have attitudes to sexuality that are inherently violent. We feed the gendered myths of what it means to be men and women in ways that are potentially dangerous.

Most worrying, we tend to abdicate responsibility for gender based-violence as a social issue that requires a response at a community and social level.

When planning the roses, the red hearts, the champagne and the romantic love this Valentine’s, let’s spare a thought for those who have died in the name of love.

* Joy Watson is a feminist researcher with 19 years’ experience in feminist activism. Her research areas of specialisation include women in politics, women and governance, violence against women, and analysing public policy and expenditure from a feminist perspective.

Cape Argus