I don’t have the answers. I do however know that Dope Black Women have a vital role to play. To create a space where women can feel safe enough to nourish, heal, and educate themselves. A place to catch their breath from the daily onslaught in and outside of their homes.
Can you picture a life constantly thinking about what to wear out in public? Not because you’re obsessed with looking trendy but because your outfit might invite unsolicited catcalling or being followed by strangers? Or a life where you cannot take a jog outside during the day with your phone listening to music – god forbid you’re wearing tights and a crop top. Or how about going to a seemingly safe place like a post office? You can’t possibly get killed in a post office, right?
Our president called the Gender Based Violence crisis in South Africa a second pandemic. He’s not wrong. If only our crisis was as simple as taking a vaccine and being free of this constant paralyzing fear. Let me paint you a picture of the last few years in SA.
Before the lockdown, in 2019, South Africa saw thousands of women and men dressed in black take to the the streets to mourn the death of numerous young black women brutally killed in just a year alone. “Enough is enough!”, we chanted. We marched for women like Karabo Mokoena – a 22 year old who was killed by her ex-boyfriend and unrecognizably burnt. ‘I put petrol on her and walked away’ he testified in court.
We marched for 25 year old undefeated karate and boxing champion Leighandre “ Baby Lee” Jegels. A fighter who died at the hands of her police officer boyfriend who shot her multiple times in the face at point blank range.
We marched for Uyinene Mrwetyane. A 20-year old student who simply went to the post office to collect a package. She was lured inside and killed in broad daylight by an employee.
And we marched for Tshegofatso Pule, a 28 year old woman who was 8 months pregnant and found hanging from a tree. Her boyfriend had her killed.
These are but a few examples of women who died at the hands of men and made headlines here. So many others are not publicly recorded at all.
As a result #AmINext started trending, with women on social media sharing their chilling experiences of sexual assault, rape and attempted murder.
Our fears are real. Our experiences are real. And although extensive evidence is non-existent (which shows how unimportant this issue has been for our police services), those that are available say that every 3 hours a woman is killed in South Africa – that is five times the world average. Half of all women murdered are killed by their intimate partners or men they had a close relationship with.
And it doesn’t end there. We fear strangers. Every man is a possible perpetrator.
I recently asked a couple of women I know about this. ‘What does safety mean to you and do you generally feel safe?’ Not one of them said they feel safe. In their own homes or in public. This is the sentiment of women who I would say are fairly sheltered from the daily aggressions we face as women. Sheltered in the sense that they don’t have to take public transport where the threats are greater. Sheltered in the sense that they don’t have to walk to an outside shared toilet at night with the risk of getting raped. This doesn’t make their experience less important or less disturbing.
‘What do you do to feel safer?’, I asked. I received a myriad of answers – from having your keys between your fingers when walking to your car, the buddy-system when going to the toilet at a club and having one person watch your drinks, to policing what they wear, especially if they’re using public transport.
South African women have gone from shocked, to scared, to angry to numb and right back to being shocked when news of the next missing woman breaks.
It doesn’t help that the system is not on our side either. Women are turned away at an alarming rate by police officers who are either ill-equipped to deal with gender based violence or have their own cultural biases and send wives home to ‘fix things’ with their husbands. In some cases perpetrators simply pay them to make the case go away.
This is what we as South African women are up against. The odds are stacked against us and so we’ve formed a safe space for each other. A 24hr buddy-system. We pretend to be friends with women we think might be in danger to save them. We create fake voice calls to protect each other when using an Uber. We create lists of perpetrators on social media to possibly protect the next woman. We tend to believe victims before we do men because we ourselves have been victims of some sort of violation at the hands of men.
It doesn’t help that there is insufficient research about just how enormous the problem is.
The government has mostly been paying this crisis lip service. Often showing us the proverbial middle finger numerous times over – in its policing of gender-based violence, in its justice system and in the support our governing party gives perpetrators of violence against women in their own political party. It did recently launch the Gender Based Violence and Femicide Response Fund – a fund aimed at supporting governments gender based violence response. We are yet to see what that looks like in real life and the changes that might bring.
It’’ll take more than throwing money at a problem of moral decay. Until we are seen as human beings by our fellow men instead of objects ready to be acquired, we will not win. It’ll take more than that to win the trust of women back. Don’t get me wrong, we need funding for the numerous resources needed to fight gender-based violence, so many black non-profit organisations had to close down as a result of a lack of funding.
I’m not religious, but I’m reminded of Psalm 121:1 A song of ascents. “I lift up my eyes to the hills– where does my help come from?”
I don’t have the answers. I do however know that Dope Black Women have a vital role to play. To create a space where women can feel safe enough to nourish, heal, and educate themselves. A place to catch their breath from the daily onslaught in and outside of their homes. We need a place where we can be soft and vulnerable without having to explain our existence to anyone. We need a space to come up with solutions to our own lived experiences and challenges, not only for the betterment of ourselves but for the communities we live in.
So although I have painted a bleak picture that may have left you feeling sorry or scared for us, don’t be. I have no doubt that we will find ways to better our circumstances for ourselves – it’s in our nature as women to figure things out for ourselves and create our own. Remember that we need more than lip service and a post on social media. We need you to show up for women and more so for black women. Listen, learn and support us fiercely.
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