Femicide: When Personal Liberty is a Pawn of Power-Plays
“Freedom from want, freedom from fear” – it gets personal! August marks Women’s month in South Africa where there is focus on Women’s issues ranging from successes in the workplace, at home and the plight they face with challenges which limit their advancement. In the past years and more so in recent weeks, South Africa has seen increasing numbers of women being killed by their current or former intimate partners, a phenomenon known as femicide. Femicide has its roots in the deeply engrained patriarchal attitude that women are subservient to men, and that a woman’s worth is less than that of a man. Against the backdrop of such views and their perpetuation from generation to generation, one can only look ahead with great concern to the future of young girls, who are literally at the mercy of their partners. Moreover, it is concerning to see how young boys are taught that certain behaviours are acceptable and indeed standard practice.
To rid our society of the scourge of Femicide, it is important to consider what legal avenues exist to curtail it and what solutions are available to reverse learnt stereotypes. An article published in a recent edition of the journal Lancet Global Health offers valuable insights into women’s empowerment. It describes a new index which quantifies women’s empowerment, the Survey-based Women's emPowERment index (SWPER). The index focuses on three principal dimensions of women’s empowerment, namely attitude to violence, social independence, and decision making. It clarifies instances where women lack the autonomy to embrace and practise these standards, which are of fundamental importance to their personal freedom, their perception of threats, and their opportunities to act in the interests of their personal security and freedom.
While growing up, I observed that women are hailed for being submissive and for tolerating their partner’s or husband’s misbehaviour. They are taught that the test of a woman’s strength and character lies in the ease with which she forgives and overlooks her husband’s or partner’s wrongful actions. There seems to be a constant expectation that a woman’s role is never to question or genuinely experience emotions because she is meant to operate like a machine – switched on or off as required. If you translate this into a situation where a woman has to respond to verbal or physical abuse when she has been taught to think that she is not allowed to challenge male authority, the problem becomes obvious.
In South Africa, numerous challenges inhibit bringing perpetrators of the crime of Femicide to book and obtaining justice for the victims. In research conducted by Jade Tess Weiner through the Helen Suzman Foundation, one of FNF’s think-tank partners in Johannesburg, the author points out challenges such as bail being granted too easily, low conviction rates, and unspoken undertones around male privilege whereby men in certain positions due to their public standing or education are given special and at times undue consideration or treatment. Further problems include the lack of cooperation between law enforcement agencies, civil society, and other security and governance institutions. Improved collaboration between such entities, aimed at raising awareness and securing harsh sentences, could make a considerable contribution to deterring potential perpetrators.
Cases of Femicide are usually preceded by a history of other forms of abuse. When these instances of abuse are reported to the police, they are seldom addressed with the seriousness they deserve. This prolongs the exposure of victims to their abusers and ultimately increases the risk of death. The police are the first line of contact and protection for the community, and are also responsible for responding to incidents by bringing the law to bear. However, their lack of responsiveness is not entirely their fault as they are constrained by outdated reporting processes and response procedures.
The best way to end violence against women and girls is to prevent it from happening in the first place, by addressing its root and structural causes. An article published by UN Women, a United Nations agency, recommends “a strong focus on prevention through the promotion of gender equality, women’s empowerment and their enjoyment of human rights.” It goes on to describe specific steps such as “making the home and public spaces safer for women and girls, ensuring women’s economic autonomy and security, and increasing women’s participation and decision-making powers—in the home and relationships, as well as in public life and politics.” The article also addresses the role of male counterparts of women, stating: “Working with men and boys helps accelerate progress in preventing and ending violence against women and girls. They can begin to challenge the deeply rooted inequalities and social norms that perpetuate men’s control and power over women and reinforce tolerance for violence against women and girls.”
UN Women, in partnership with the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (WAGGGS) has developed a global non-formal education curriculum to engage young people, girls and boys, in efforts to prevent and end violence against girls and women. The curriculum includes a handbook for peer educators that will help them deliver age-appropriate sessions, as well as other activities which allow them to engage as peers.
On the African continent, we are seeing some positive campaigns around gender-rights education for young girls and boys. “Consent Classes” for young boys in Nairobi, Kenya, have proven to be very successful in reforming entrenched gender stereotypes, misogyny and sexism. These classes teach boys to respect girls and women and undo entrenched patriarchal privileges. An initiative called “No Means No Worldwide” began to run pilot programmes in rural Kenya (in 2009) and Malawi (in 2015) and has reached around 180 000 boys and girls. The classes teach the meaning of consent and self-defence, and explore positive masculinity. Undoing social, traditional and religious stereotypes requires teaching an understanding and appreciation of human life based on the equality of the sexes. The objective is to combat violence against women through education, the reasoning being that if you don’t know that what is being done to you is unjust, you will not know be able to oppose it before it is too late.
Liberalism enshrines the principles of human rights and equality, founded on the primacy of individual freedom. Liberals have a duty to campaign against Femicide because it infringes on the right to life. As a civic education platform, FNF would like to see young girls and women move from a place of want and fear to a place of freedom.
- The SWPER index for women’s empowerment in Africa: development and validation of an index based on survey data: Fernanda Ewerling, John W Lynch, Cesar G Victora, Anouka van Eerdewijk, Marcelo Tyszler, Aluisio J D Barros: https://www.thelancet.com/pdfs/journals/langlo/PIIS2214-109X(17)30292-9.pdf
- Jade Tess Weiner, June 2018: https://hsf.org.za/publications/hsf-briefs/violence-against-women-part-ii-evaluation-and-recommendations