A number of recent articles have suggested that February 2013 will go down in history as the month when South Africa finally began an earnest fight against epidemic intimate partner and gender-based violence. Femicide is no rare occurrence in the country, but in the last three weeks two particularly brutal, high-profile murders have captured media attention and galvanized activists.
The two late victims, Reeva Steenkamp and Anene Booysen, represent two very different parts of South African society: Steenkamp was a white model and law school graduate famously attached to a beloved Olympic athlete; 17-year-old Booysen was black, and few had heard her name while she was still alive.
The proximity of their murders—Steenkamp posted a tribute to Booysen to her Instagram just days before her own death—presents an unavoidable reminder that gender-based violence cuts across society and cannot be dismissed as a problem faced only by others. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, though, the gory glitter of Steenkamp’s murder has overshadowed Booysen’s death in the international media.)
The jump from outrage to effective action, though, is a tricky one. Rhodes University senior lecturer Sally Matthews has a great essay on Gender Links today reviewing the State of the Nation address presented by President Zuma (who has been accused of rape) during last week’s opening of parliament. As she points out, Zuma’s call for stricter enforcement and harsher punishments for perpetrators is an understandable response to recent weeks’ events—but there’s little evidence that these practices actually reduce violence.
Meaningful change, Matthews explains, will require a national shift in gender roles and expectations. She writes:
…Stronger laws, stricter sentences, protest events and new institutions… may well form a part of such an “everyday campaign”, but for such a campaign to be effective, we also need to think carefully about the everyday actions and attitudes that form the foundation upon which GBV is built.
As many commentators have pointed out, the men who rape and kill are not strange monsters with a different constitutional make up to other people. There is no murder or rape gene which drives some to kill or rape while the rest of us look on in horror. Rather, the attitudes that help make such behaviours possible are present in many.
The belief that a woman is a passive creature, to be seduced, pampered and looked after may result in high sales of furry pink teddy bears on Valentine’s Day, but may also conceivably play a part in some men’s inability to believe that a woman’s “NO” ought to be heeded.
The national uproar in response to the deaths of two women is a start, but for February 2013 to be remembered as a true tipping point, South Africa needs more than outrage to combat violence.