Amnesty International SA: From peace in the home to peace in the world

By Prince Charles

Universities need to stop viewing gender-based violence as a mere criminal issue, gender-based violence is a human rights violation and all human right violations are enemies of development. The reduction of gender based violence to just a women’s issue to the exclusion of men is a major hurdle.

In 1998 South Africa signed on to an international awareness drive called the 16 Days of Activism for no violence against women and children. The annual campaign which starts on the 25th November and ends on Human Rights Day (December 10) has several goals namely;

  • To encourage all South Africans to help eradicate violence against women and children
  • To encourage society to acknowledge that violence against women and children is a social, rather than governmental problem
  • To encourage collective responsibility within communities to tackle violence against women and children

It was in this context coupled with a sharp increase in violence in universities that Amnesty International South Africa together with its various university chapters convened a discussion on how to address gender-based violence in universities in Port Elizabeth. The human rights organisation convened the discussion with the objective of learning directly from university students about the gender based violence situation in universities and furthermore involved various stakeholders in interrogating possible solutions into the phenomenon. The stakeholders included Amnesty International’s university chapters from the University of Pretoria, University of Witswatersrand, Nelson Mandela University, University of Cape Town, University of Stellenbosch and the University of Western Cape.  Also represented were ACTIVATE! Change Drivers, Masifunde Learner development, Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality, United Nations Association of South Africa and the Congress of South African Students.

Human right activist Susan Tolmay kicked off the session by drawing a broad picture of the current situation around gender-based violence at institutions of higher learning and made specific mention of the horrific rape incident that took place at the Nelson Mandela University where a male perpetrator raped and robbed two young women at a computer laboratory in October, the incident sparked widespread protest and highlighted fundamental differences in the understanding of gender based violence between university management and the student body. The panel spoke in unison that gender based violence was a human rights issue and therefore required a multipronged approach.

Several speakers were of the view that language as an institution was perpetuating and undermining the fight against gender based violence. The language used in campaigns against gender based violence was regressive, campaigns which label gender based violence as a ‘scourge’ were severely criticised, Nobubele  Phuza pointed out that “the scourge is not gender based violence, but it is those men who rape women, they are the scourge”. The reference to people who have been sexually assaulted as being ‘raped’ and labelling them as ‘rape victims’ or ‘rape survivors’ also has profound consequences as it leads to stigmatisation and hinders the call to speak out against violations. Language as an institution was therefore responsible for the normalisation of violence in society because it allowed for a passive voice which exonerates men from responsibility; representatives of Activate in their presentation quoted Jackson Katz where he argues;

“We talk about how many women were raped last year, not about how many men raped women, the use of the passive voice has a political effect, it shifts the focus off of men and boys and onto girls and women. Even the term ‘violence against women’ is problematic. It’s a passive construction; there’s no active agent in the sentence. When you look at the term ‘violence against women,’ nobody is doing it to women. It just happens to them…Men aren’t even a part of it”.

Panellist Vuyo Tshingila lamented the absence of certain voices in the fight against gender based violence at universities and in general society. The absence she argued was due to the fact that society had an obtuse binary/ heteronormative bias when it addresses issues of violence. This automatically created ‘marginalised bodies’ that included refugees, members of the LGBTIQ+ community and rural women.

Another burning issue was the policy framework of institutions of higher learning (particularly sexual harassment policy) the student body accused the universities of not publishing sexual harassment cases. Students also made startling allegations that political movements in the institutions were harbouring rapists, who in turn used sexual assault incidents as tools of political mobilisation. The health care services also received condemnation with students decrying the level of violation young women encounter when they are subjected to rape kits after sexual assaults.

The Nelson Mandela University responded by acknowledging that it is indeed a contradiction that incidents of violence occur in a space named after a Nobel laureate and human rights activist. The institution appealed for a solution orientated engagement rather than a confrontational one and went on to unpack the launch of its Memeza campaign; a campaign which involved the distribution of yellow whistles which are blown once someone is in distress. The whistle is both a literal and metaphorical item in the sense that it is a call for the student body to be ‘whistle blowers’ against gender based violence.

After a multipronged multi-sector dissection of the issues, the entire house agreed that men had to first acknowledge the privilege they enjoy due to the patriarchal arrangement of society and be active participants in changing the current reality of violence. Civil society movements need to partner and make sure that the language used in campaigns against gender based violence is modified and is more politically correct. A fundamental shift in policy by universities is necessary to ensure accountability and to empower marginalised bodies within the higher education space.

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