It’s an occupational hazard when you work on women’s rights, to routinely face women who have been subjected to unspeakable violence, horrible beyond anything you could imagine. As a young lawyer in South Africa in the 1990s, one of first my clients was stabbed by her estranged husband. I held her hand as she bled to death on the pavement. When I worked as the director of the Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre to End Violence Against Women in Johannesburg, I, and the other lawyers who provided legal advice at the centre, saw women every day looking for help to protect themselves from rape, beatings and other violence. Many of our clients arrived at the office with the signs of violence clearly visible on their bodies and their faces.
I developed a high tolerance for these things, and little that I see in my job as as the director of the Women’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch has the power to shock or outrage me anymore. Perhaps it’s a coping mechanism; I tell myself it’s a way of creating a necessary distance that allows me to continue to be an effective advocate and to believe that change is possible.
I first saw the reports about the rape and murder of Anene Booysen on Twitter in the morning. I read all the tweets, as I do with anything I come across about South Africa. But the tweets and Facebook posts kept coming, wave after wave of outrage, anger, despair and anguish. So I did a quick Google search to find out what had happened to Anene. Even with the stoicism I have developed, the story was almost too hard to read and I skipped over the paragraphs describing injuries the men who gang-raped the seventeen year old, inflicted on her.
Much of the outrage about the rape and Anene’s death is being directed at the government and its failure to prevent violence against women and girls. At the risk of being controversial and stirring up a hornet’s nest, I think this is misplaced.
South Africa has a world class legal and policy framework to address violence against women, including well-crafted laws on domestic and sexual violence, specialized courts and integrated medico-legal centres to provide comprehensive post-rape care. I know from first-hand experience that there are many problems with the implementation of these laws and policies (for example, many of my clients were turned away from police stations when they went to get protection orders against abusive husbands).
But the reality is that the government alone, even with the best will in the world, cannot prevent all violence against women. They cannot put police officers into every bedroom, classroom or workplace where so much of the violence happens, and they cannot patrol every side street, taxi and park every day and every night. What they can, and must do, is ensure that the police are equipped to fearlessly and rigorously investigate any report of rape or domestic violence that they receive; and ensure the justice system is fair, efficient and effective in prosecuting perpetrators. Over time, this will deter some of the violence, hold rapists accountable, and deliver justice to women. But what will actually end the violence? The answer is both frighteningly simple and profoundly complex.
Violence against women will stop when men stop perpetrating it.
We need to be clear about that. For as long as men rape, beat and kill women, the violence will not stop. We need to pay attention to prevention, and there are no quick fixes, easy solutions or magic bullets. Prevention requires an investment from all of us—not just the government. It means at least doing two very important things. First, we must think about how we educate our boys and young men, and not just in the classrooms. As a society, we need to instill in them a firm belief in the equality of women and girls and in their right to live lives free of violence. This is not just a job for schools and universities, but for mothers and fathers, communities and government. We need to challenge sexism wherever we find it, including at the highest levels of government.
Second, the women’s movement needs to actively engage with men. There is a growing body of research to demonstrate that working with men does make a difference and helps to end violence against women. We need strong, decent men—and there are many of them in South Africa—to be our partners and to work with us to build a human rights culture and foundation for respect of women in South Africa.
Writing this, I thought about Anene. Not as I kissed my daughter good night, but as I watched my son sleeping next to me. I thought that those men, vicious and depraved as they are now, were also little boys once. And I wondered where we missed the opportunity to turn them into men who don’t rape? If we do anything at all to honor the memory of Anene, it must be to pay serious attention to the difficult job of preventing attacks against women.