February is an infamous month with respect to the perpetration of violence against women in South Africa. This February marks three years since Anene Booysen, a 17 year old girl from a rural town in the Western Cape, was raped, disemboweled and left for dead. This February also marks three years since the death of Reeva Steenkamp, in an upmarket housing complex in Gauteng, at the hands of her boyfriend Oscar Pistorius.
Despite the enormous attention and outrage that these two cases drew, in the past three years thousands of women have continued to be victimised by extreme forms of violence. These include the high-profile cases of Jade Panayiotou, Rachel Dolly Tshabalala and Fatima Choonara, the gang rape of two primary school girls at a Vosloorus school and the recent spate of rapes at Rhodes Memorial in Cape Town. However, these cases represent only a fraction of the problem, with research documenting that a women is killed every eight hours and 62 649 rapes being reported nationally in 2014/2015.
This continuing onslaught on women and girls demands that we re-examine how we think about (and respond to) violence. In particular, there is a need to recognise how what we do every day, how we talk and think about other people and ourselves, and how we relate to each other, creates a context in which extremely high rates of violence are able to occur.
In a context where men and women are (and are thought to be) deeply unequal, violence occurs as a somewhat “ordinary” happening and is deemed a “necessary” and “appropriate” way for men to display and enforce their power over women. As violence has to a great extent become “unremarkable” and common-place, we need a powerful, wide-reaching strategy to disrupt these practices.
This strategy needs to involve a dramatic restructuring of our everyday thoughts and actions, as it is only through disrupting everyday practices of inequality that we can begin to construct a context in which violence become unthinkable.
Families represent an important site in which every day practices of inequality occur. There is a long history of feminist literature which highlights the ways in which the home serves to reinforce inequality between men and women (through for example, an unequal division of labour where women are more likely to be responsible for domestic chores and child care, while men are more likely to be responsible for paid labour).
In order to better understand the kinds of everyday inequalities which occur at home, I interviewed a number of South African families about how they think about and practice gender. Across a range of different families, problematic notions of gender, which position men as socially dominant and physically strong and women as lacking authority, emerged. These notions reproduce unequal relationships between women and men and create a context in which violence becomes possible. However, there were also families who challenged these notions and instead positioned men and women as equal. As one thirteen year old girl said, “we’re all human beings”.
In an attempt to disrupt everyday inequalities, the Masculinity, Tradition and Social Change Programme has produced a range of postcards which promote gender equality, incorporating children’s quotes from the interviews. Through making gender equality visible, as well as forcing ourselves to reflect on practices of inequality, we can begin to transform our society into a less violent place to live.
To read a policy brief based on the results of this research project visit: http://www.samrc.ac.za/policybriefs/GenderInequality.pdf. To read more about the Masculinity, Tradition and Social Change Programme visit: www.ishs.org.za. If you are interested in ordering postcards please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rebecca Helman is a Masters Research Intern at the Institute for Social and Health Sciences, University of South Africa & Violence Injury and Peace Research Unit, South African Medical Research Council & University of South Africa. She is an unapologetic feminist and a volunteer counsellor at Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust’s Observatory office.
 Abrahams, N., Mathews, S., Jewkes, R, Martin, L. J., & Lombard, C. (2012). Every eight hours: Intimate femicide in South Africa 10 years later. Available from: http://www.mrc.ac.za/policybriefs/everyeighthours.pdf
 We know that most rape survivors do not report their rapes to the police so the number of actual rapes is far higher.