From Paris to Washington, all women need easy access to real help in times of crisis

Recently, former President of George Washington University, Stephen Joel Trachtenberg suggested that violence against women on university campuses in the United States could be reduced if only women were trained not to drink in excess. He added that we need to educate “our daughters and our children” who drink too much.

At least, with these recommendations, women will remain sober while being subjected to violence? This type of comment is too often accepted in public spaces, such as NPR where it was expressed. As long as discriminatory comments and acts are still presented as primitive solutions, violence against women will persist.

Women need easy access to real help in times of crisis. Women also need society as a whole to stop discriminating against them, making us ever more susceptible to acts of violence.

In France, a recent bill, For a Real Equality Between Women and Men, takes on violence against women in its multifaceted approach to create conditions for more equality. The bill offers other methods to address this issue. Some are for immediate relief for women. Others offer a long-term approach to make violence against women clearly and unequivocally unacceptable.

The distribution of the free personal cell telephone “grand danger” (emergency phone) to women who are at risk of domestic violence is inscribed in the new law. This measure has been initiated by Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, who presented the bill to Parliament in coordination with Christiane Taubira (Minister of Justice) and Bernard Cazeneuve (Minister of the Interior in charge of police).

The cell phone is connected to a call center where trained people may activate a police intervention, which should be effective within ten minutes, according to Najat Vallaud-Belkacem. A woman who feels threatened presses three times on the bottom of the phone to be connected to the call center. Other numbers are pre-registered in the phone to give access to associations that provide psychological support to women who may just need to talk.

The phone is given for six months, renewable, to women whose former companions have been issued a no contact order by the court. With the phone comes psychological support to reduce the feeling of isolation that domestic threat produces.

This system is already widely used in Spain.

After four years of trial in various areas in France, the phone “grand danger”, according to Christiane Taubira, has been a clear success. It has saved lives and has helped women to break the cycle of violence and isolation. In fact, the phone seems to give women a sense of security. According to the Public Prosecutor of the Republic of Paris, the great majority of women call just to make sure that the phone is working; only 10% of the calls are for actual emergencies.

This method is now part of a national plan of action to reduce violence against women and will be accessible to women in the entire French territories including the DOM TOM (French overseas departments and territories). However, as Christiane Tuabira made clear, it is not a gadget. It is there to stop the cycle of sexual and domestic violence and provide preventative and timely assistance to women who are the victims of such violence. This device is part of a larger set of actions. The goa,l said Christiane Taubira and Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, is to reduce the level of acceptability of violence against women in society in order have fewer “grand danger” phones.

Let’s extend this goal to the United States and stand up against comments, such as those of Stephen Joel Trachenberg, that show the pervasiveness in ordinary language of discrimination against women, making us more vulnerable to violence. There’s a petition that offers one of the numerous actions to change the level of discussion. You can find it, and sign it, here.

Please sign and share the petition. Every effort counts!

Australia’s shameful trade in refugees and asylum seekers

What’s the going rate, the market value, for refugees and asylum seekers these days? Ask the Australian government.

Australia and Cambodia are close to finalizing a deal on refugees. No one seems to know the details of this arrangement, because both countries are keeping it very hush-hush. But what we do know is it involves refugees and asylum seekers being moved from Australia’s catastrophic adventure in Nauru, to Cambodia. Some, in the Cambodia opposition, say this could involve as many as 1000 refugees, and they are most likely going to be `relocated’ on a remote island off the coast of Cambodia.

We also know that Australia is one of Cambodia’s largest aid donors. Over the past four years, for example, Australia has donated over $329 million to Cambodia. We know that Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the world. We also know that Australia has criticized Cambodia’s human rights record, more than once and most recently at the United Nations.

We are told that refugees will be `relocated’ only if they volunteer, but if they refuse to volunteer, their refugee status will be reviewed.

In both Cambodia and Australia, opposition to this deal has been fierce and intense. Much of it has centered on the conditions in Cambodia and the folly of sending refugees, many of them fleeing the violence of conflict zones, to an area just emerging from a long and brutal civil war. Others point to the economic hardship of life in Cambodia and others to the difficult political, civil and human rights situation.

What about the marketization of refugees and asylum seekers? Australia won’t be `relocating’ refugees. It will be dumping human beings, like so much cargo, and wiping its hands clean … or dirty. One thousand human beings who have asked for help and have already been dumped on one inhospitable island are now to be dumped again on another, even more inhospitable island? This `deal’ takes the privatization of `care’ for asylum seekers and refugees to a new, and yet very old, place: offshoring.

Cambodia will `volunteer’ to take the refugees because Australia has offered it cold, hard cash, or financial benefits. And so the entire region will become one giant marketplace for human cargo, not quite slaves, not quite not slaves.

Shackling pregnant women prisoners violates the law and women’s rights!

This past session, Maryland passed anti-shackling bill HB 27. It took two years to pass a bill that protects pregnant inmates from being shackled. The Maryland bill passed along with one in Massachusetts, making these the 19th and 20th states to have such legislation. A number of states have passed anti-shackling bills restricting the use of restraints. Still, these bills don’t guarantee protection of the right for dignity of pregnant inmates, especially considering that most pregnant inmates are African Americans, Latinas, American Indians or members of other stigmatized communities.

The Maryland bill was enacted on July 1, and already the question of monitoring and enforcement has emerged. Why? In the states where these “anti Shackling” bills have been enacted, women detainees are still being shackled.

Recently, some cases of shackled pregnant or post partum inmates made the news, in horrific cases of women who were degraded in the process and had long term health consequences or were put at risk of having complications for being shackled during pregnancy, labor or post partum. Equally shocking is that the reasons or justifications given ranged from lack of training of personnel in charge to lack of enforcement power attached to the bill. According to one report, “Many correctional systems, doctors, guards and prison officials simply are not told about anti-shackling laws, or are not trained to comply”

How can professionals in charge of women prisoners ignore what constitutes torture, despite “modern” means of communication? Speculators can place financial orders to make enormous amount of money in a nanosecond, but a bill that forbids torture needs so much effort to be understood? What type of training is needed to see that a pregnant women walking with chains or having chains around her waist is torture?

Despite anti-shackling legislation, pregnant women in Texas are constantly at risk of being shackled. New York passed an anti-shackling law in 2009. Recently, in a survey of 27 women who had given birth in New York prisons, 23 said that they have been shackled before, during or right after their delivery.

The women prison population is on the rise. The official language is that the vast majority goes to prison for non-violent offenses. The reality is their social position makes them more vulnerable to being punished for pitiful reasons. Meanwhile the punishment inside the prison is constant and degrading. Abuses go from restricting the number of maxi pads for periods per month and per woman, unless the woman pays for more, to restricting motherhood, making it difficult to keep contact with already born children as well as guaranteeing decent conditions for pregnancy, delivery and post partum recovery.

70% of incarcerated women are mothers, and about 6% are pregnant. Still, women inmates are treated like men. In Maryland during the discussion of the anti-shackling bill, testimonies arguing against the bill presented possibility of escape as a major risk. All the “evidence” concerned men’s attempts to escape while being transported to hospital. No one said anything to correct this. Women who are pregnant don’t escape. There has been no incident of women in labor escaping or causing harm.

The anti-shackling bills have also a tendency to be weak in the protection of pregnant women. In Maryland a series of amendments dulled the impact of the introduced bill. The language – including recognition of the conditions of pregnancy, the importance to comply with international human rights principles, and more precisions about the monitoring of use of restraints if deemed necessary of HB 27 – was crossed out. Still, this bill is important, and it is what we have in Maryland. All efforts should now go to monitoring the application and enforcement of the bill so pregnant inmates are not left alone to deal with abuses.

So far, when pregnant or post partum inmates are shackled in anti-shackling states, the response is a lawsuit. “But there is no policing entity that’s really going to hold these institutions responsible.”

The conclusion should be clear and should include the entire United States. The United States should pass a clear federal law that prohibits shackling pregnant incarcerated women. Why not become more human and make the incarceration of pregnant women more difficult if not impossible? Why not stop the cycle of violence and torture? Women’s right to dignity has to be defended at the national level. A right is a right, and a law to protect women’s dignity is a law!

 

Gift Makau was laid to rest today

I have struggled to sit down and write about the rape, torture and murder of Gift Makau in Ventersdorp last Friday for days now. The mix of ugly and disturbing emotions that battle within me for expression is something to be avoided. I hate the grief, pain and anger I feel and how they permeate my days. How to say what needs to be said? How to find words, the right words?

Even after almost twenty years of working in the field of sexual violence and violence against women I still have little or no idea why men rape. So often people ask this question both in formal and in informal conversations. Why? I sidestep the answer, I dance around it, I avoid the standard rhetoric and the psychological theories. None of them do it for me. None of them give an explanation that would lead to a solution, a cure, a correction. Rehabilitation of sex offenders is a contentious issue with many believing that it is seldom successful. Certainly our rape rates in South Africa indicate that nothing is slowing this problem down.

To make it a problem of men or to cast women continuously in the passive light of victim is not an answer that I like. Sex is something that happens between men and women. Rape is something that happens between men and women. What is that “between” space? What happens there? The same thing happens between two women or between two men having sex. It is not the province of one gender or one kind of sexual act. It is a like a continuous ongoing conversation of enormous complexity. We bring ourselves, or parts of ourselves, to that conversation and it continues to compel us all. We have to begin to talk about what happens between us. To find the words, the right words.

In the end I decided to address my words to the man that raped and killed Gift Makau. At Rape Crisis we never comment about the motives of the perpetrator of rape. We never claim to know what he is thinking or feeling or what drives him. When journalists or researchers ask us we always refer them to an expert from an organisation that works with offenders. For once I want to break that rule.

To the man that killed Gift Makau: “How lost are you to your own humanity? What made you like that, what shaped you? What choices, if any, did you make that lead you down this path? Could you even answer these questions? What makes you think that you can change something that is not a personal choice? As if you could change your race? Or the fact that your mother gave birth to you? Or the placement of your internal organs in your body? These are facts of your identity. Just as being a lesbian was a fact of her identity. You can never change that fact.

“Just as you can never change the fact that she has sisters and brothers. All across South Africa and all around the world she has sisters and brothers that rage, and sorrow and mourn for her. We will fight this fight to make you know, just as you know your own name, that she is who she was and always will be. There are many, many more like her who will live lives of strength and courage and integrity and never stop asserting their right to do so even in the face of acts such as yours.”

 

((This is part of a collaboration between Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust and Women In and Beyond the Global. The original, under different title, can be found here. Thanks to Kathleen Dey and all the staff and volunteers at Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust for their great and urgent work.)

Irom Sharmila’s struggle against militarization and for peace

After fourteen years in “protective detention”, fasting, and being force-fed (in the name of protection), Irom Sharmila, anti-militarization and just peace activist walked away from the shackles of State protection yesterday.

On November 1, 2000, in the state of Manipur, in India, insurgents exploded a bomb as a battalion was passing by. No one was hurt, nothing was damaged. Nevertheless, the battalion retaliated, on November 2, by mowing down ten innocents standing at a bus stop in Malom. Included in what has come to be known as the Malom Massacre were “a 62-year old woman, Leisangbam Ibetomi, and 18-year old Sinam Chandramani, a 1988 National Child Bravery Award winner.” A pregnant woman was also reported as being one of the dead.

The army knew it could act with impunity. It was covered by the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, or AFSPA. AFSPA was imposed in Manipur in 1961. Much of the rest of the Northeast has been under its rule since 1972. By the government’s own testimony, tens of thousands of people have been disappeared, tortured, beaten, abused. In Manipur, this began in 1961. By 2000, it had gone for almost four decades.

Irom Sharmila decided then and there that enough was too much. On November 4, 2000, she entered into an indefinite fast, a hunger strike that would continue until the Armed Forces Special Powers Act is rescinded, the soldiers withdrawn, the people restored. She was arrested almost immediately and put into “custody” for attempting to commit suicide.

This week a judge decided that there was no evidence of a suicide attempt, and the State must release Irom Sharmila, and so on Wednesday, she walked out of the hospital, a “free woman.”

Asked about her feelings, Irom Sharmila smiled and described the air outside as “refreshing.” She then got down to business: “I will not touch food or water. I want a mass uprising on the AFSPA issue. I don’t want people to glorify me. I want them to come forward and support my cause, my protest against AFSPA. It’s a draconian law that has widowed many women, robbed women of sons, husbands and fathers. It must be repealed.”

Fourteen years ago, Irom Sharmila began a hunger strike against militarization in one part of India. Today, we see a global network of supposedly democratic, ostensibly protective militarization of everyday life, a “special powers” global factory that produces only corpses and widows and mothers in mourning in the name of security, just war, and, worst of all, peace. When Irom Sharmila left the hospital, where she’d been held for fourteen years, she walked a short distance to a tin shack, where her supporters have been camping. She wanted to spend her first day of independence in the arms of solidarity, surrounded by women. The struggle for peace continues.

In France, for the real equality between women and men

On July 23, 2014, the French Parliament passed a bill entitled “for the real equality between women and men.” The bill covers nine fields of societal life and avoids the pitfall of opposing private and public life that has always kept women invisible. Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, France’s Minister for Women’s Rights who introduced the bill, explained, “Because inequalities are everywhere, we’re having to act everywhere.”

Here is a quick summary of the nine parts that address parity and professional equality as well as precariousness and violence.

* Pregnancy and employment.

Women already enjoy maternity leave from 6 months for the first child to a possible 3 years after the second child. With the bill there will be an additional 6 months for paternity leave. Jobs will be guaranteed during maternity and paternity leaves. Today only 3.3% of fathers take some kind of parental leave. Commonly, men argue that they don’t want to suffer career consequences in taking parental leave. This law may help reverse this trend by first forcing paternity leave and reducing the impact of parental leave on parent’s career. However, the financial compensation is still meager compared to what is given in countries like Sweden where 90% of fathers take their parental leave, but it is a start.

*Professional equality.

Women are paid an average of 25% less than men for equal qualifications and have a harder time finding jobs that are labeled masculine. A broad range of measures in the bill address this issue, from subsidies to penalties for companies, public administrations, etc. In addition, a campaign has been launched in order to support jobs’ desegregation and fight gender stereotypes that affect women’s education. According to France’s Department of Labor, in order to have professional parity, 52% of the workers should change jobs. Studies suggest that in 60% of the cases educational segregation is responsible for discrepancies. Although in France women hold more degrees than men, they are more under employed.

*Breaking the glass ceiling to support access to decision-making position in public administration and companies for women.

Starting in 2017, there will be mandatory 40% women candidates to positions of executive manager in the public sector.

*Protection of single mothers.

For single mothers who don’t receive regular child support from the father of their children, a public trust will be granted to women to protect them from financial loss while measures to recover child support will be taken.

*Protection of women against domestic violence.

Women who are victim of domestic violence will have full protection, and their violent “partners” will be removed immediately. The bill reinforces the anti-abuse laws in the military and at university. It also provides better protection for immigrant. The law provides a wider array of possibilities for the sentencing of perpetrators of domestic violence to avoid repeat offences, with more education programs. The bill ensures nationwide of the very successful free emergency hotline.

*Better access to information on abortion.

The bill changes the language of the abortion law from a situation of distress to not pursuing an unwanted pregnancy. It also reinforces protections against anti abortion activists.

*Act against gender stereotypes.

France’s media regulator CSA will now have the authority to assure that women are not diminished with sexist statements or degrading representation. This measure will include sensibility training for journalists.

*Addressing hyper-sexualization of girls.

Beauty contests for children under the age of 13 are banned, and authorization is needed between the age of 13 and 16.

*Political representation

The bill increases fines for political parties that do not meet equal representation objectives. In 2012 with 40% of women candidates to the National Assembly, only 26.9% were elected.

All these measures tackle the various reasons that keep women in precarious positions. They also work on language and symbols as patriarchal references. For instance, the bill removed some gender-loaded language, such as “the good family man”, from the Civil Code. It also works on societal symbols, equaling marriage and civil union.

These measures are a start and were long due. Still, as Vallaud Belkacem declared, “I don’t believe that history is going to spontaneously take us forward, so going towards more equality needs us to be politically proactive.” Meanwhile, the French government barely respects the bill’s call for parity since men hold the all main ministries.

The opposition to the bill was small. However groups that have a conservative vision of family and nation argue that women should keep their role and it will cost too much to the state to support these changes. This type of opposition reveals once again that the unpaid, unrecognized work of women has been sustaining the civil society at the cost of women’s rights and well-being.

After all, at the time of the French revolution, the French Revolutionary Congress did not include women as citizens in its Declaration of Rights, the Declaration of Rights of Man. Instead it sent revolutionary women to the guillotine and banned women from debating men as equals.

Two centuries and a half later the Parliament finally showed signs of change. Clearly, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem is right. We need proactive political actions to address gender inequalities , and we need to remember that class and ethnic inequalities are linked to gender inequalities and must be addressed politically.

Trauma and violence have become the global school curriculum

Paballo Seane, 19, was buried recently: “Paballo Seane, 19, a Grade 12 pupil at Cefups Academy, which is on a farm 11km outside Nelspruit, died in hospital over a week ago after allegedly being sjambokked by a teacher. She was buried on Saturday in her home town, Bloemfontein, in the Free State.”

Since Paballo Seane died, or was killed, former students of the Cefups Academy have reported their memories of sjamboks as a fairly regular “pedagogical tool.” Parents are threatening to take their children out of the school, and Mpumalanga Premier David Mabuza has said if corporal punishment was used, the academy will be closed.

Will it be closed?

This is not the first time Cefups Academy has run into precisely this trouble. In 1999, Simon Mkhatshwa, the school’s founder, was convicted for sjambokking a teacher.

South Africa’s Deputy Minister of Higher Education Mduduzi Manana, a graduate of Cefups Academy, describes Simon Mkhatshwa as a “typical traditional man who believed that what must happen at school was teaching and learning and nothing else”.

Is the sjambok teaching, learning, or nothing else?

The violence done to Paballo Seane in school by a staff member is no anomaly, neither in South Africa nor around the world.

Across the United States, schools use so-called seclusion rooms, which are solitary confinement cells. Teachers are not supposed to use the rooms for punishment, but they do regularly. More often than not, the children believe that their punishment was not apt and normal, because teachers are fair and just. And so they don’t tell their parents. Not surprisingly, the majority of children are living with disabilities.

Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven? No longer.

And in India, in the state of Madhya Pradesh, the State Commission for Protection of Child Rights “has written to state government to make it mandatory for teachers to sign an undertaking against torture to students.” This is due to a spike over the last two years in complaints of torture of students by school staff.

Teachers need to sign a document that says they will not “undertake” the torture of students?

The gender dynamic of staff violence has yet to be studied conclusively. What is known is that the experience is traumatic, hurts deeply and lasts forever. Trauma and violence have become the global curriculum.

Last week, Kathleen Dey, of Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust, urged South Africans not to use Women’s Day, August 9, as an alibi for hiding from precisely violence against women. This week, on August 12, the world `celebrated’ International Youth Day. Think of that, and think of Paballo Seane dying under the lash of a sjambok. Think of the girls across South Africa, the United States, India and around the world who suffer violence in the one place that is meant to help precisely girls advance in this world and the next: school. Remember Paballo Seane and all the girls, and then do something.

 

(This is part of a collaboration between Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust and Women In and Beyond the Global. The original, very different version can be found here. Thanks to Kathleen Dey and all the staff and volunteers at Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust for their great and urgent work.)

Now you have touched Aderonke Apata, you have struck a rock, you will be crushed!

The United Kingdom tried to crush Nigerian lesbian, feminist, asylum seeker Aderonke Apata. Big mistake. They threw her into Yarl’s Wood, the notorious prison for women asylum seekers and migrants. She organized and mobilized. They tried to cast doubt on her claim of being a lesbian. She looked at them with pity, and then provided evidence. They tried to silence her. She founded Manchester Migrant Solidarity, aka MiSol, “a convergence space for migrants (including asylum seekers, economic migrants etc.) and non-migrants, offering practical and social activities for mutual support, empowerment and solidarity.” MiSol joined with WAST, Women Asylum Seekers Together; and Safety4Sisters to make clear there is only way forward: Shut Yarl’s Wood.

The State tried to turn Aderonke Apata into a spectacle, then into a cipher, then into a ghost. Each time the State failed, or, better, each time Aderonke Apata succeeded in organizing, mobilizing, articulating, shouting, whispering, speaking, singing, being heard and being fearless.

At a #ShutDownYarlsWood demonstration in June, Apata explained, “This wasn’t people speaking for other people, we heard women telling their own stories about what goes on in Yarl’s Wood. … Conditions in there are very bad, with poor healthcare, abuse and bad treatment, when these are women who have experienced imprisonment and torture before … Many women develop mental health problems that they didn’t have before. The prison environment brings back bad memories. There is no reason to detain these women in prison, for this is what Yarl’s Wood is …This is going on in our backyards, and yet people do not know about it. When they find out, they are enraged … We will speak with a louder voice until it is heard and continue to make more noise about Yarl’s Wood until it is shut down.”

Apata’s asylum case, and status, is still pending. Nevertheless, and because irony is decidedly not dead, Aderonke Apata, this past week, made the shortlist for a National Diversity Award, in the Positive LGBT Role Model category. In the eyes of some, Aderonke Apata is a hero, and the State is condemned.

Awards are nice, acknowledgement of one’s work is great, action is the best. End the United Kingdom’s current witch-hunt against African lesbians, against African women asylum seekers, against African women generally. Shut down Yarl’s Wood. Don’t delay, don’t pretend it’s complicated. It’s not. The “conditions in there are very bad.” Every day Yarl’s Wood is open, women living trauma are forced to engage with their past traumas wrapped into new ones, with the pain intensifying by the second. Every day Yarl’s Wood is open, women who sought help are exploited and then exploited again more intensively. It’s not complicated. Shut down Yarl’s Wood, because it’s bad and wrong, and every day it’s open, we are steeped deeper and deeper into guilt and shame. All of us are. Shut down Yarl’s Wood. Do it today.

Sexual Offences Courts Matter, and Here’s Why

August is Women’s Month in South Africa, and so last week, to launch Women’s Month, and presumably `to honor’ women, two judges of the Pretoria High Court reduced to 20 years the life sentence of a man convicted of having repeatedly raped an 11-year-old girl, a girl he says he regarded as “a daughter.” The judges reduced the sentence because they determined that the 11-year-old girl “seemed to be a willing partner.”

What? What?!?

According to South African law, not to mention common sense, an eleven-year-old child is never a willing partner to anything. An eleven-year-old girl cannot give consent to sexual contact, and nobody gives consent to sexual violence. Period.

From start to finish, the decision is all wrong, and, yet again, one can only be outraged and, yet again, foment and rage and lament the betrayal. Or …

Or one can consider this abysmal case as the proof, if one were needed, that greater attention must be paid to serious investment in Sexual Offences Courts.

Alison Tilley began the week by asking, “Did you know we have only fifteen functioning sexual offences courts?” Last August, the Ministerial Advisory Task Team on the Adjudication of Sexual Offence Matters launched its Report on the Re-Establishment of Sexual Offences Courts. After a year of study, the task team issued a strong and clear report, with direct and clear recommendations: “In the final analysis, the report makes a clear finding that there is a need for the re-establishment of Sexual Offences Courts in South Africa … The Department must give priority to the immediate upgrading of the 57 regional courts that have been identified as being resourced closest to the Sexual Offences Court Model. This upgrading process must be done against available resources, and must commence in the 2013/2014 financial year.”

The original plan was to have 22 functioning courts by the end of 2013/2014 financial year. There are 15.

In South Africa, sexual offences courts began in 1993. By the end of 2005, there were 74 sexual offences courts. Little by little, the courts were closed because of “budget constraints.” The budgets weren’t `constrained.’ The legislators decided, with their wallets, that protection of the vulnerable just doesn’t matter all that much. It’s happened before, it’s happening again.

Last year, the discussion of Sexual Offences Courts was impelled by the torture of Anene Booysen. This year, perhaps, it will be moved by the judicial violence done to an eleven-year-old girl raped by a man who thought of her as “a daughter” and by a court, and court system, who didn’t think of her at all.

 

(This is part of a collaboration between Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust and Women In and Beyond the Global. The original, slightly different version can be found here. Thanks to Kathleen Dey and all the staff and volunteers at Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust for their great and urgent work.)

Hiding behind Women’s Day. Again.

I remember as a child going with my mother to register our domestic worker for a pass book. Two women and a child going to a place far from home to wait in a queue to deal with men behind counters who told us what to do and who represented a violent system. This would have been in the early 1970s, almost 15 years after women protested the pass laws in their march to the Union Buildings in 1956. Now we have a day to celebrate those women and everyone seems to have forgotten that protesting against structural violence was what their march was all about. This is what we should never forget: that we were a country that deliberately oppressed people, restricting their movements and keeping them from their own power.

Today the oppression of women and of poor women in particular continues. We may not be able to say that it is entrenched in our laws the way the apartheid system was but I worry that Women’s Day actually becomes a way to forget, to hide from and to obscure the very real issues that we face today. In an atmosphere of celebration it seems wrong to stand up like the evil fairy at the princess’s birthday party and say, “We are not free.” To invade the corporate pamper day and say, “Our rape statistics are some of the highest in the world. This needs to change.” To stand on the platform at the ceremony to honour women’s achievements and say, “What have we not achieved?”

One of the effects of this watering down of the real issues is that the public forget about the individuals, organisations and communities that do deal with the reality of rape and violence against women every day. Everyone wishes the ugly problem would simply go away. Let’s not taint the celebration with doom and gloom. Also of course, let’s not leave men out. I’ve heard so many people say, “Why don’t we have a Men’s Day?” as though this were the commercial opportunity of Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day or Father’s Day. And then there is the lure of the dream, “Let’s find the solution to this scourge and move forward.” I would like to find that solution. I fear it may just be a dream.

At the Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust we are certainly not in the business of chasing dreams. We don’t have the time. We don’t have the people. We don’t have the money. What we do have are a group of extraordinarily committed women who work every day to make sure that change happens. The change that one woman makes when she comes out of a counselling session and says to herself, “It was not my fault. I did not deserve this.” She sees that she can heal. Or the change that a group of peer educators make when they stand in front of the assembled teachers and learners of their school and say, “Don’t be ashamed to report rape. You were not to blame even if you were wearing a short skirt on that day. A skirt is not an invitation to commit a crime.” They see that they can change the hearts and minds of others. Or the change that a government makes when it drafts a law that says it will empower the victims of crime with information, with counselling, with a proper tracking system for cases in the justice system and with joint planning between government departments to ensure well coordinated, cost effective services. It sees that it can provide a deterrent.

Women’s Day is a day to commemorate. To remember and to show respect. This need not be without celebration but that celebration should include an action that gives tribute and that ties the past to the present in service of the future. Otherwise it is just another holiday or an opportunity to commodify women. Join us as we march from St George’s Cathedral to the Artscape Theatre on Saturday 9 August 2014 at 9.30am but don’t let it stop there. Take your #mydoekselfie every Friday and share it with your friends on Facebook but don’t let it stop there. Make your own extraordinary commitment. It is not for me to say what that should be but let it be something that moves you, something that allows you to change. To change in a way that frees you and a woman that you know. Something that makes her feel safer, more respected, better supported and more free to make her own choices and decisions. Don’t hide. Speak out. Make just one change.

 

(This is part of a collaboration between Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust and Women In and Beyond the Global. The original can be found here. Thanks to Kathleen Dey and all the staff and volunteers at Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust for their great and urgent work.)