16 Days of Activism: Making bodily autonomy and the right to be free from violence a reality
By Beatrice Mutali, Christine Muhigana and Chris Cooter
As the 16 Days of Activism of No Violence Against Women and Children draws to a close, we are reminded of the concerning levels of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) in South Africa.
This reality is evident in the recent statistics released by the minister of police which noted that between July and September this year, 8 922 cases of rape were reported in the country, with KwaZulu-Natal having the highest figures.
In addition to injuries, women exposed to intimate partner violence are 1.5 times more likely to have HIV, twice as likely to experience depression, and 16% more likely to have low birth weight babies.
The escalation of the GBV numbers in South Africa represents not only a threat to the well-being and bodily autonomy of women and girls. It also threatens their physical, sexual and reproductive health and hampers women’s social and economic development thereby affecting their equal participation in society.
It is furthermore of concern that educational institutions are becoming hotbeds for sexual violence with 380 cases of rape having been reported at either schools, universities, colleges or day care facilities earlier this year (SAPS; 31 July 2020).
The government’s National Strategic Plan for Ending GBV and Femicide acknowledges that women’s experiences of violence happen within these contexts. It proposes a necessary change in behaviour and social norms, shifting away from toxic masculinities and embracing positive alternative approaches. It proposes to work with a range of partners to implement this including the various tiers of the government, civil society, movements, youth structures, faith-based structures, traditional structures, the media, development agencies, the private sector, academic institutions and girls and boys themselves.
Such engagement holds the key for sustainable change: a society where men and boys are key partners and are also responsible for preventing and addressing GBV.
This is why UNFPA, Unicef and Global Affairs Canada have established a programme in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, focusing on empowering women and girls to realise their sexual reproductive health and rights. This initiative is grounded in the understanding that the provision of services, by itself, is not enough. We must also work to decrease discriminatory and harmful practices and attitudes that perpetuate SGBV against women and girls.
This joint programme includes community engagement and dialogues as well as the training and development of toolkits and resources for community actors including traditional leaders, parents, men and boys. Equipped with these tools, they can challenge prevailing harmful gender norms and practices and build positive attitudes to end SGBV.
As the funder of the programme, the Government of Canada, grounded in its Feminist International Assistance Policy, supports work to address and transform harmful behaviour that has negative consequences for all genders. UNFPA brings to this partnership a long tradition of working with men and boys, both globally and in South Africa, to understand their own sexual and reproductive health rights as well as those of women and girls.
Unicef has extensive global and national experience in building protective education systems, supporting parenting and men-care programmes and strengthening child protection systems to prevent violence against children.
When men and boys are engaged, they can serve as positive role models for change and help to realise the rights of women and girls. Together, we can end the gendered social norms that position women and girls in a place of disempowerment, lack of agency, and further expose them to harmful practices, poorer health outcomes and gender-based violence.
No one institution can fight the scourge of violence alone and by strengthening prevention, lives will be saved and healthy communities sustained.
* Beatrice Mutali is a representative of the UN Population Fund South Africa; Christine Muhigana is a representative of the UN Children’s Fund South Africa and Chris Cooter is High Commissioner of Canada to South Africa.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.