Speaking out helps only if someone is listening; and often, the very services tasked with protection are unsympathetic, writes Savera Kalidden
Pretoria - Our constitution enshrines the right to be free from all forms of violence from either public or private sources, yet many young women are growing up in an environment in which violence is so normalised that some no longer look to the authorities for help.
At a recent panel discussion on young women and violence at the Soul City Institute for Health and Development Communication, young women from communities, high schools and the tertiary sector were invited to share their experiences of violence.
We heard story after story from young women who had been abused, seen abuse or been criticised for standing up against abuse.
The panellists, who spoke both as individuals and members of their organisations, voiced their anger and showed resilience in the face of violence they had experienced and vowed to listen to and support others in the same situation.
They insisted they would not accept violence against women and would work to end it.
We have seen young women rising up and speaking out across the country. At tertiary institutions they have been at the forefront of #FeesMustFall protests and have spoken out against sexual abuse.
But most of the girls and young women are not in institutions of higher learning - some are still in school but many fall outside the mainstream. These young women represent a powerful political constituency whose voice is rarely heard.
Research shows that 34.5% of young women are neither employed nor at any educational institution, compared with 29.9% of young men. Those who have children bear greater child-rearing responsibilities, with social and structural barriers impacting on access to their sexual and reproductive health and rights.
Social and economic power imbalances between men and women increase young women’s vulnerability to HIV.
Young women between the ages 16 and 24 also encounter high levels of violence - including rape, domestic violence and sexual assault - which is recognised as a major driver of the HIV epidemic.
It is critical therefore that we listen to their voices to hear what action they really need from us to help them protect themselves against violence and HIV.
But the opposite usually happens. Young women at the panel discussion recounted numerous experiences of being ignored by those who society tasks to assist them during times of crisis.
“When I got to the police station, the police laughed at me. It was not rape, they said,” recalled one woman.
Another reported how, when violence against young women takes place, there needs to be public pressure to ensure that the police do their work.
When a young woman was raped in Thokoza, members of the Soul City Rise Club, some of whom were as young as 14, organised a march to force the police to respond.
But, asked another participant, do we need to march for the police to respond to hijackings or burglaries? Why are women’s bodies not regarded as important as cars, houses and other material possessions?
The lack of police action in response to violence against women could be the reason that in the 2014-15 statistics, just 53 617 sexual offences were reported to the police around the country.
However, researchers point to high levels of under-reporting, with organisations such as One in Nine insisting that only one out of nine cases of violence against women gets reported.
If this is accurate, then the correct statistics for 2014-15 would be closer to 482 000 attacks in a single year.
There is little evidence of a multi-stakeholder strategic plan and the required resources for monitoring and implementation to deal with such violence. Instead, there was applause when one woman said: “Black women, you are on your own.”
The lack of value placed on young women’s lives was a message communicated to many young women who pointed to the family, both male and female members, the police and educational institutions as the bearers of this harsh and rejecting message.
Patriarchy was blamed, and women, including mothers, aunts and sisters, were often seen to uphold it.
Young women spoke of being asked what they were wearing or why they were alone with an uncle when they reported violence or abuse, while those who perpetrated the violence were free from such interrogation.
The irony is that attempts have been made to respond and prevent these high levels of violence, including the passing of legislation such as the Domestic Violence Act and the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Act.
South Africa has also signed and ratified international human rights instruments, put in place gender equality policies, set up gender institutions and mainstreamed gender to address the inequalities and discrimination faced by women.
But, as the South African Youth Context Report notes, this has not resulted in significant change in the lives of women and girls.
The particular vulnerability of African women was highlighted during discussions. They remain the group of women who have the lowest levels of education; they are also in the majority in the lowest-paying jobs and they remain unemployed in greater numbers than other women.
These are structural drivers that are known to increase women’s vulnerability to violence.
UN research shows that the inequalities between men and women can increase women’s and girls’ risks of abuse, violent relationships and exploitation, for example, due to economic dependency and limited survival and income-earning options, or discrimination under the law as it relates to marriage, divorce and child custody rights.
The UN General Assembly noted that violence against women and girls was not only a consequence of gender inequality, but reinforced women’s low status and the multiple disparities between women and men. The young women speaking out against violence demanded greater focus on violent crimes against women, increased accountability for action and the need for solidarity to challenge the status quo.
They called on all women to break the silence and “name and shame” rapists and perpetrators of violence.
They also proposed a social movement of young black women in particular to demand change in how women were treated.
We are often told that our youth are our future, but the statistics of violence against young women say something else: they speak of inequality and inaction which is robbing young women of their dignity and creating almost insurmountable barriers to them fulfilling their potential tomorrow.
* Savera Kalideen is the senior advocacy manager at the Soul City Institute of Health and Development Communication.