– Gesie van Deventer. Van Deventer is the mayor of Stellenbosch.
Do you know what a battered woman, covered in blood, bruised and sometimes with broken limbs, looks like? Do you know the terror of a small child in fear of his or her dad? Do you know the devastation of a girl child or boy child raped by a family friend, an uncle, her stepfather or even his or her father? Have you ever witnessed a once strong and beautiful woman reduced to an emotionally scarred, fearful and depressed victim of violence? Do we still notice the bullies amongst us all over our society? Or do we tolerate them as “that is just the way they are”, or “that women really deserves what she gets” or “I do care but unfortunately I cannot get involved”?
Recently our headlines were dominated not only by Covid-19, but by stories from across the country that has demonstrated how very real and prominent gender-based violence in South Africa is. Violence against women and children is a terrifying reality that our women and children face every day of every year. It is a horrific pandemic impacting lives daily and it runs through generations of women and children. Yet it is tolerated by our society.
I am very aware of violence against women and children (and other vulnerable groups) as I was exposed to so many incidents during my career as lawyer. Working as Public Prosecutor, defence lawyer, magistrate and assessor in the High Court, I often faced victims of this scourge and experienced the pain and destruction of lives of so many women and children. Listening to their stories first-hand kept me awake many nights.
Most victims come from a cycle of abuse and violence that can be traced through their family history. Despite the fact that their stories are similar, the demographics of the victims varies in age and culture, from new-born to elderly, from rich to poor. Violence against women and children really does not discriminate and is perpetrated and perpetuated in all societies. Despite my many years of experience with these cases, it always has and still causes me immense emotional distress. After all these years, I still get very angry about every case of abuse and I still cry for and mourn every woman and child that lose their lives.
StatsSA estimates that on average one in five South African women older than 18 have experienced physical violence. In most cases, those responsible for the horrific crimes and abuse are known to the victims. StatsSA further estimates that nearly half of women across South Africa are subjected to violence by an intimate partner. These statistics cannot leave us untouched, we all should be horrified and worried about this.
Our only solution as a society is that we have to change our approach to gender-based violence. We must not only focus on protecting and helping victims, but we must focus on how to prevent gender-based violence. We need to do serious introspection about why this is happening and what is wrong with us as a society that it happens so frequently. What is it that we are teaching our children that turns them into abusive adults? What example are we setting if our children grow up to be abusers, rapists and murderers of women and children?
As mothers, fathers and carers of children we have a responsibility to teach every boy child how to treat women and children from the day they are born. We also have to teach our girl children to respect themselves, to value themselves and not to determine their value by the images and messages from popular culture. Is this how we value ourselves and others?
Unfortunately, some women are also abusers and it has equally devastating effects. In fact, it is to me even worse when the mother as a primary caretaker and protector of her children, commits these crimes against their children. I still cringe when I remember old cases or read news clips of new incidents about a mother assisting her husband or boyfriend to assault, terrorise or even kill her own child. I once sat in a High Court case where a woman was slowly and systematically tortured by her life partner and eventually killed her. The pain of the victim’s little boy and her parents is ingrained in my memory. Fortunately, that perpetrator was sentenced to a long term of imprisonment, but it could never bring back the innocent victim.
A new form of abuse has started to emerge on social media. Maybe you have suffered the abuse of someone targeting your dignity or integrity on an ongoing basis. These bullies hope to break you down emotionally to enable them to manipulate and control you. We read nowadays even of children committing suicide when it becomes too terrible to bear.
There is a great need to provide more support and assistance to make it possible and easier for victims of abuse to leave their life-threatening circumstances. Many women and children are trapped in abusive situations as they are materially dependent on their abuser. Even though we have an efficient constitution in South Africa and a justice system supported by various pieces of legislation, many victims of abuse feel powerless to leave their abusers because they will have no way to support themselves or their children. We all need to pressure the legal system and civil society to create and put in place a better support system for women and children who want to leave abusive circumstances. It must be an easily accessible solution that can provide support and rehabilitation for the victims of abuse. Although it is an easy suggestion to make, it is very difficult to implement as resources are always lacking.
We do, however, work with various partners from civil society to help them provide support and services to victims of abuse.
Violence in any form against women and children requires the collective effort of every member of society. It is yours and my responsibility to shout out loud when we see abuse and violence. It is our responsibility, yours and mine, to help and care without judgement. It is all of our responsibility to teach and show our children self-respect and how to value their lives and the lives of others. Only then can we build a society free of violence and fear. Its starts with me and it starts with you.