Activists around the world on Monday launched 16 days of activism against gender violence, an annual campaign that for more than 20 years has aimed to eradicate violence against women and girls. But the campaign appears to have largely failed in countries like South Africa, which is often called the “rape capital of the world.”
This year’s campaign against gender violence comes during an especially rough year in Africa.
South Africa was riveted by an especially vicious rape case when teenager Anene Booysen was brutally gang-raped, disemboweled and left to die.
In Kenya, three men were arrested for gang-raping a 16-year-old and injuring her so severely that she is now confined to a wheelchair. They were ordered to cut grass at the police station and then released.
And in chaotic Congo, the tide of sexual violence that has washed over the nation’s women and girls continued, as armed groups, including the country's military, ravaged the population while fighting for resources and territory.
This is the harsh backdrop against which gender violence activists are working during the annual drive to stop sexual violence.
For activist Shireen Motara, the campaign is just another 16 days on the front lines of an unrelenting battle. Motara is the executive director of the Johannesburg-based Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre, which helps women who are victims of violence.
“I think in general the gender-based violence sector is skeptical about the 16 days. ... I do think that it does serve a purpose in at least highlighting in the issues and creating a little bit more awareness. I am not sure that it is effective to the point of changing behavior or improving the the situation. But you know, for us for example, for my organization, we are continuing with the work that we do,” said Motara.
Activists said there were indicators awareness was increasing.
Hundreds of protesters took to the streets of Nairobi in October to demand a harsher penalty for the alleged rapists who were sentenced to cut grass.
The South African man who confessed to raping Booysen was earlier this month given the stiffest possible punishment of two life sentences.
And last week, a Congolese court started trying dozens of soldiers accused of mass rape and other acts of sexual violence.
Human Rights Watch
Africa Advocacy Director Tiseke Kasambala said her organization had tracked some improvements, especially in South Africa, but more needed to be done.
“There has been progress in terms of campaigning and the formation of government task teams looking into gender and sexual-orientation based violence. And there has been some progress in setting up systems here in South Africa to track cases of violence, in particular against LGBT people through the criminal justice system. But the challenges remain," she said.
On Monday, South African President Jacob Zuma, who has himself been tried and acquitted of rape, spoke out against sexual violence to mark the first day of the campaign.
“No woman or child should be sexually harassed, beaten, raped, stabbed, shot or attacked in any manner, anywhere in our country,” President Jacob Zuma said in a statement. “Those who commit such horrendous crimes have no place in our communities. They belong in jail.”
Motara welcomed Zuma’s words, but said she questioned the dedication of leaders in ending gender-based violence.
“Part of the challenge we have in our society is because there is a general sense that the leaders in the country do not really take the issue of gender-based violence and gender equality seriously. So, it is lip service at certain points in time, but you do not see that being reflected through the way in which there is communication, the way in which our laws and policies are framed, the way in which there is implementation of our laws and service delivery to our citizens,” she said.
Activists like Motara said they would continue to fight the battle long after the campaign ended on December 10, which is International Human Rights Day.
That timing was apt, Motara noted, as violence against women and girls hurt everyone. After all, each one of those victims is someone’s daughter, mother or sister.