Beyond 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence: SARChI Chair, Professor Deevia Bhana, comments

Beyond 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence: SARChI Chair, Professor Deevia Bhana, comments

Turning the tide against socio-economic injustices, patriarchy and cultural norms that propagate certain forms of masculinity, as well as young women rethinking their ideologies about love and relationships, would go a long way toward ending gender-based violence in South Africa, says University of KwaZulu-Natal-based Professor Deevia Bhana, based on her research around the intersectionality of socio-economic inequalities and sexual violence over many years.

Prof Bhana is the DSI-NRF South African Research Chair (SARChI) in Gender and Childhood Sexuality. She tapped into her ongoing research in an interview to mark the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence. 

“In this study I looked at a group of girls between 14 and 18 based in a high school in KwaZulu-Natal, in an impoverished township area. These girls had joined a forum at the school,” she says. “This forum allowed girls an opportunity to talk about the things that matter to them. The forum was created in a school specifically because of concerns related to girls’ vulnerability to sexual violence in relation to male peers and male teachers as well as concerns about unintended teenage pregnancy.”

“Relationships are a significant part of schoolgirls’ lives. However, even when young, girls talked about sex and relationships as being very dangerous and boys were seen as predators,” says Bhana. 

“This notion of sex as danger was reinforced through their experiences in families. They had first-hand knowledge of violence through witnessing it at home, from the experiences of their family members and friends. And it was women and girls who bore the burden of such violence. Girls were constructing boys and men as dangerous in terms of sexual violence, coercive sex and violating their right to sexual consent. But this message wasn’t only from boys. It was through their everyday experiences inside their families and in the surrounding communities.” 

Notwithstanding these misgivings, some of these girls entered into relationships out of their own desires, says Bhana. 

She adds that the same relationships that they desired were also a source of great adversity for them in terms of subordinating to boyfriends; their inability to negotiate sexual consent; and being exposed to intimate partner violence. 

“These relationships actually mirrored what they knew about women and girls’ vulnerability in their homes and community. And so, the endless cycle of girls’ and young women’s vulnerability to sexual violence within this highly unequal context was repeated,” says Bhana.

“These girls are becoming tomorrow’s women who are vulnerable to femicide, HIV and high levels of violence perpetrated by men that are known to women.”

“The schoolgirls participating in the forum viewed attaining higher education as a ticket out of the township and destructive relationships. There was a bond established between the power of education and moving out of the township context to support a new version of being, economic prosperity and a better life to reduce their vulnerability to sexual violence and coercion.”

Says Bhana, “This is not to say that it is only in township contexts that we’re confronted with this sort of violence. But the scale in which we’re confronted with such violence (in the townships) and the intersecting factors of race and class inequalities, unemployment and gender norms come together to provide a picture of the complexity of the problem.”

Attaining socio-economic justice and rights, ending inequalities would go a long way toward reducing the scale of gender-based violence in the country.

“What if we could address the oppressive systems, including the legacies of apartheid? What might it take to end these legacies including patriarchal and cultural norms, so that the women and girls experienced better lives?” Bhana asks.

“For now, the only strategy (for girls) is to aspire to an education. Through education they believe that they will get a job and then be able to move out to better middle-class income areas in order to escape the oppressive systems evident in townships. We know, however, that this ideal is not one that can be easily realised, and neither can it guarantee their safety.”

Patriarchal norms, too, should be challenged to deepen transformation, Bhana adds. “These ideologies continue to mean that in a boardroom you will still find mainly men. This gender segregation in occupation, the inability of women still to break the glass ceiling, needs to be confronted.”

Cultural norms should also be transformed. “That means changing how families think of girls’ and women’s roles in the household. And that means working with men. It also means working with community leaders, chiefs of particular villages and leaders in township communities to actively change the discourse around the way we see women’s place in society,” says Bhana.

“We need to work with girls to revise the ideologies that reinforce their normative understanding of love and relationships. That discourse is very powerful among young women as they idealise love. And yet we know that intergenerational inequalities and violence are reproduced precisely in these sorts of relationship dynamics, where they are seen to be the ones in subservient roles”

Bhana strongly believes it is possible to turn the tide against socio-economic inequalities and gender-based violence. South Africa’s past and the present convinces her of this.

“What makes this so impossible? We have laws and policies. That we know are not enough, but our everyday events, experiences and interactions encompass part of a changing world and one in which a stronger sense of consciousness is being built around gender equality and a growing solidarity in this shared vision. We need more people to join in this vision to end violence against women and girls”

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