United We Shall Stand in South Africa

Content note: this post contains references to sexual violence.

South Africa is a fascinating country with integrated cultures, beliefs and traditions, painted with exquisite coastlines and majestic mountain ranges. But there is a very dark and complex shadow following this fair face.

In South Africa, a woman is killed by an intimate partner every eight hours.

In 2015, 55.5% of South Africans were living in an appalling state of poverty, with no food, clean water or proper housing. That’s 13 million children living in poverty. The sad reality is that many of the South Africans who could make a difference are too far removed and unaware of the dangers that exist in our townships. We believe we are faced with the issues on a daily basis, but are often oblivious to the reality of the circumstances and brutality people are facing around the country.

All around us, women are the victims of sexual crimes. All around us, women are being murdered. Earlier this year, a student was brutally raped and murdered on the outskirts of a very elite town, and the whole country was up in arms. Influential and successful people spoke out against the crime.

But, my fellow South Africans, this has been happening for many, many years to girls and women all over our country. The only difference is that there is no funding, media outlets or organisations willing to help when the victims live in poverty. It is deeply disturbing that privileged South Africans only start realizing the severity of a problem once the monster creeps into their own circle. I too am guilty of this.

Why don’t we hear about the little girls who are abducted and raped while walking home from school, or the countless victims of gang-rape in the townships? I’ve struggled to find accurate statistics for this blog, as the government has not funded any research for years.

Gender-based crimes need to become a priority in South Africa.

Last month, a spark of hope was ignited when South Africans united in a plea to have all charges dropped against the courageous ‘Lion Mama’. She had caught three men raping her daughter near her home. She killed one and severely injured the other two. Social media was flooded by support and crowd-funding to help with her legal fees.

It’s time to get real. We too often believe that it can’t happen to us, or that sexual harassment has never happened to anyone close to us. Do we subconsciously stay distanced from the ugly reality for our own sanity?

In the light of the recent #MeToo movement on social media, I think many of us were shocked by the scale of sexual harassment that has happened right in front of our eyes, to people we thought we knew well. To me, this is the first step in changing our attitudes –  becoming aware of what is going on around us.

Let’s face the reality of the situation. 

Women and girls are crying out for help. Becoming aware of abuse taking place around us can drive us to make a change and offer a helping hand to those who need one. We each have resources that others may not have, so let’s use our individual privileges to shed some light. To the girls in South Africa who need a safe haven: this country and the authorities might let you down, but I never will.

Interaction, education and communication are golden. So, this is my call to fellow South Africans as well as people around the world: let’s become more aware, get more involved and speak up more loudly about the wrong doings in our communities. Don’t get caught up in your own bubble – there are so many people out there that need us. Let’s stand together and protect each other. Let’s form a united front that nobody can hurt, damage or break.

We are women.
We are powerful.
We are fearless.

United we shall stand – a phrase that can no longer be just a line from our national anthem.

#MeToo: We’re all in this Together

For a long time, sexual harassment and assault have remained unspoken, well-kept secrets that women have felt ashamed of acknowledging.

A major shift has taken place this year, alongside the accusations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. A decade ago, I couldn’t have imagined that so many women around the world had experienced sexual coercion or intimidation. Now, I’d be surprised if I could find a single woman I know who hasn’t.

Earlier this month, actor Alyssa Milano took to Twitter and wrote:

Personal stories quickly began pouring in from women and men all across the world. The hashtag #MeToo has become a rallying cry against sexual assault and harassment. Before long, it had become about so much more than Harvey Weinstein.

I remember being subjected to harassment long before I even knew what harassment or assaults were. School-going boys. Middle-aged men. Married men. A policeman. That boy who considers himself a ‘feminist’. Colleagues. On the bus. Across the pavements. In a queue. At a temple. The touch that was made to look accidental. That ‘friendly’ squeeze. The head-to-toe stare that makes you feel uncomfortable. The offensive comment, the explicit remark. Cyber-bullying. The list goes on.

There’s a long history of victim-blaming in order to protect perpetrators of violence, and to legitimize and normalize sexual harassment and assaults. We are raised in a society that tells us girls get assaulted for a reason. Her skirt was too short, her smile too wide, her breath smelled of alcohol, she was out too late.

Society has long been trivializing sexual violence with dismissive phrases like “boys will be boys”. We have been defining masculinity as dominant and sexually aggressive and femininity as submissive and passive. We’ve spent our energy teaching women to avoid being raped, rather than on teaching men not to rape women.

I think the worst part of being harassed or assaulted is that it makes you forget to be kind to yourself. It makes you question your own existence and forget how to accept yourself. For me, it has taken years of ignorance, silence, self-blame, and internalization, as well as thousands of conversations with friends and family, to feel ‘worthy’ again.

Too many of us choose to suffer in silence because we are afraid speaking up will reduce our identity to being ‘just a victim’. But sharing your story does not make you a victim. Sharing your story, if it’s what you choose and what feels right for you, can be one the bravest things you will ever do. You are a survivor – setting the world on fire with the truth. And you never know who else will benefit from your light, your warmth and your raging courage.

The goal of #MeToo was to give people a sense of ‘the magnitude of the problem.’ The power of #MeToo is that it takes long-standing silence and transforms it into a movement. On one hand, it’s a bold, declarative statement: “I’m not ashamed of what I have been through.” On the other, it’s a reassurance from survivor to survivor: “I feel you and we are all in this together.”

There’s still a monumental amount of work to be done, but exposing the colossal scale of a problem we have kept swept under the rug and hidden in our darkest corners? That is revolutionary in its own right.