16 days: To end the violence we need to break the culture of silence

If there is one important lesson that we have learned from our campaigns over the years, it is that NOT speaking up against GBV is not an option.

Ending gender-based violence and ensuring the safety of women and girls is achievable and should be a priority for all governments, institutions, communities, societies and individuals. This should be topmost in our minds as the world prepares to mark the annual 16 Days of Activism for No Violence against Women and Children.

For far too long, impunity, silence, stigma and shame have fuelled gender-based violence to alarming levels, bringing this human rights violation to an enormous magnitude. However, in recent years, the drive for change has garnered more visibility due largely to the determination and bravery of grass-roots activists and survivor advocates in many parts of the world. Such efforts included the global #MeToo and #TimesUp, as well as the South African-led controversial #MenAreTrash, which was followed by the #TheTotalShutDown in South Africa and women’s marches across numerous African cities, amongst other movements that rallied public outcries against the scourge.

If there is one important lesson that we have learned from these campaigns, it is that NOT speaking up against gender-based violence is not an option if we are to ensure that gender-based violence is uprooted from our families, communities and societies.

In South Africa, the #TheTotalShutDown movement marched on the 1st of August – a strategically significant move as August is the month in which National Women’s Day falls and the entire period is observed as Women’s Month to highlight the struggles, wins and legacies of women. The campaign culminated in the first ever national Summit on Gender-Based Violence and Femicide, which was convened by the country’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, and had women’s rights groups and civil society organisations participating at the beginning of November. The Summit was one of key demands of the #TheTotalShutDown campaign when women in all their diversities presented a letter of their concerns to President Ramaphosa back on August 1 during a march to his office in Pretoria.

Three months later, the campaign resulted in a Summit that adopted a National Declaration which, in part reads: “The extent of gender-based violence and femicide in South Arica renders it a national crisis.”

This is a public political acknowledgement of the crisis levels of gender-based violence in the country, and it’s long overdue. The National Declaration also clearly articulates a set of 17 commitments towards addressing gender-based violence, one of which includes the immediate setting up of an Interim GBV Coordinating structure. The interim structure will be tasked with establishing a functional Council within six months.

Another piece of good news came out earlier this month. The British Medical Journal published a study on the decline in the prevalence of female genital mutilation.

It found that the rates of female genital mutilation among girls under the age of 14 have fallen significantly in most regions of Africa over three decades (the data spans from 1990 to 2017). Some of the stats show that:

  • Prevalence decreased from 71.4% in 1995 to 8.0% in 2016 in East Africa.
  • Prevalence decreased from 57.7% in 1990 to 14.1% in 2015 in North Africa.
  • Prevalence decreased from 73.6% in 1996 to 25.4% in 2017 in West Africa.

But we are way too far off from ending female genital mutilation and much more still needs to be done to prevent all girls from experiencing this harm, including early and forced child marriage which often follows the mutilation of girls. Both results shared above are due to vocal, visible and sustained advocacy efforts by many actors including human rights activists and defenders, civil society organisations, think-tanks and institutions. But of course, we need to remain vigilant and continue to make our voices heard in order for many such changes to occur to eradicate gender-based violence in all its forms.

Gender-based violence is any harm or suffering that is perpetrated against a woman or girl, man or boy that has a negative impact on their physical, sexual or psychological health, development or identity. Women and girls are mostly affected by it, and globally at least one third of all women have been exposed to violence in an intimate relationship, but men and boys can also be subjected to gender-based violence. Regardless, the violence is linked to gender inequalities and gender norms.

Gender-based violence has a wide range of expressions of violence such as intimate partner violence, sexual violence by non-partners, female genital mutilation, honour violence, early or forced marriage of children, violence against LGBTIQ people and trafficking in human beings. In situations of war and conflict, sexual and gender-based violence is particularly prevalent.

In many of our African countries, these atrocities continue. For instance, we are deeply concerned by the continuing unrest in the English-speaking parts of Cameroon where 80 villages have been destroyed and 437 000 people have been displaced as a result, over 500 civilians have died and women and girls continuously experience rape and sexual assault since the political crisis started in 2016. We call on both factions in the Cameroonian conflict to find a settlement and restore peace and normalcy to Cameroon. We call on the African Union and the United Nations to intervene in the conflict – and not only pay lip service – in order to stop the continuing savagery and loss of lives.

We are also deeply concerned by the homophobic statements uttered recently by the President of Tanzania. The call for communities to identify and report LGBTIQ persons is irresponsible and a gross violation of human rights. This, we suspect will expose LGBTIQ persons to certain danger and stigmatisation. We urge our partners in all the MenEngage Africa countries to ensure that no form of violence is visited on the LGBTIQ community in their midst. We need to stand firm behind the “do no harm principle” which is applicable in this situation.

The cause of this violence is founded in power imbalances rooted in patriarchy, gender-based inequalities and discrimination. gender-based violence is the most extreme expression of these unequal gender relations in society, and a violation of human rights, as well as a main hindrance of the achievement of gender equality.

For us as MenEngage Africa Alliance, an important point of departure is that gender-based violence is preventable and can be stopped. This can be achieved through a focus on the root causes of violence and on possibilities for change. Our belief is that the engagement of men and boys to challenge long-held views of masculinity that are steeped deep in patriarchy is absolutely necessary.

Thus, we renew our allegiance to the elimination of gender inequality and gender-based violence. We call on men and boys in all their diversities and from all society sectors to intensify and/or join calls for an end to gender-based violence and gender inequality. We recognise that men and boys are crucial for efforts to end these injustices. After all, men are authors and benefactors of patriarchy.

Between November 25th and December 10th, all 22 MenEngage Africa Alliance country networks will host and participate in various activities to observe the commemoration of 16 Days of Activism for No Violence against Women and Children.