OPINION - In the past few days the news has been dominated again by cases of abhorrent gender crimes - one involving the rape of a 7-year-old girl in a Dros family restaurant, one where a fake doctor raped a 17-year-old mother soon after she gave birth and recently a 9-year old girl was raped in a toilet in Blikkiesdorp.

These events reflect the harrowing statistics released by the police. In the 2017/18 period, 36731 cases of sexual offences against women were reported and 23488 against children.

In the wake of these cases there has been justified outrage and anger and renewed calls to intensify punitive forms of justice. Some have even gone as far as arguing that convicted rapists should receive the death penalty.

Given the nature of these acts, this knee-jerk, guttural and angry response is not surprising. However, when we advocate for harsher punitive measures, we ignore the structural obstacles embedded in our criminal justice system that deny any form of justice too often.

We ignore the fact that when survivors report crimes to the police they are met with an absence of victim-friendly safe rooms, an absence of rape kits and inadequate police resources. We ignore the fact that survivors are often further shamed and traumatised by officers, who themselves might be perpetrators of violent, gender crimes.

Often prosecutors and judges refuse to view cases such as these as part of a bigger problem in South Africa.

Many survivors are denied justice by these bodies long before they have the chance to appear in court.

If survivors do make it to court, they are confronted with an adversarial legal structure that centres around processes and not people and hardly takes the reality of unequal gendered socio-economic and power dynamics into account, especially as these relate to informed consent.

While calls for harsher punitive measure are alluring and seem justified, they only serve to position our criminal justice system as the only effective remedy to combat gender crimes.

The criminal justice system is too limited and rigid to address the underlying driver of the violence, South Africa’s culture of toxic hyper-masculinity.

This masculinity does not attribute personhood, autonomy and consent to feminine bodies. It sees women and those in proximity to femininity as objects for the male gaze and objects that exist for conquest, with or without consent.

This is rape culture. Beyond individual justice, the criminal justice system offers nothing other than deterrence.

So what can we do? For one, whether the most recent act of violence was directed at a young child or a young mother, we need to acknowledge that women and especially women who face other forms of discrimination (racism, poverty and queer-phobia), are all targets of violence.

Also, we need to acknowledge that men are the perpetrators of this violence and are the main guardians of the norms that strip women of their agency, worth and bodily integrity.

Lastly, we need to reflect on the fact that we have never collectively and publicly mourned victims or truly seen or heard those who were violated before 1994, during the transition and since.

Harsher punitive measures alone will not lessen gender-based crimes. We need a criminal justice system that is not flawed from the outset, one that values the lives and experiences of all women.

We need a government that is dedicated to gender justice when dealing with those in its own ranks, the Zumas, Fransmans, Mananas and the endless stream of men who occupy positions of power and continue to make women not only feel undervalued but also unheard and unsafe.

We need leaders to speak out against violent crimes regardless of who the victim is and protect survivors from those who threaten safe spaces. We need to be able to confront men in religious and other institutions of power who prey on little boys and girls. We need to hold women accountable when they defend perpetrators. The historic and flawed view that rape and gender-based crimes are a private matter cannot be used as an excuse any longer.

South Africa needs a catharsis, it needs a responsive and gendered criminal justice system, but most importantly a national acknowledgement, dialogue and accountability.

These conversations should include why we devalue the lives of women in the way we do, it should aim to deconstruct rape culture and how we perpetuate it, starting with how there is a reluctance to educate the girl child, how young girls’ consent is ignored each time they are asked to kiss older male relatives and how communities perpetually infantilise women, ceasing only when a man marries her.

It needs to be honest that gender-based violence, domestic violence and sexual assault is the norm, not the exception; that women whether they are farmworkers or corporate seniors face inappropriate attitudes, touching and violence from their male counterparts.

It requires platforms that value all women but also investigates why South African men (from all races and backgrounds) hate South African women and direct such visceral violence towards them. The criminal justice system alone cannot do this.

Bawa is working as a researcher at the Social Justice Coalition in Khayelitsha, Cape Town