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This Valentine’s Day don’t ignore the screams next door

Research shows women are more likely to have high blood pressure and experts blame the added stress of unequal gender roles.


One year ago, on this “day of lovers”, Reeva Steenkamp, a 29 year old-model was shot dead by her boyfriend, world-famous celebrity athlete Oscar Pistorius, whom she had been dating for a few months. Her killing continues to grab the headlines, but it hasn’t really changed the way we talk about what happens behind closed doors.

Too often, we say what happens between partners, spouses or in the home is “none of our business” or it’s “family business,” but the cost of doing nothing is too many lives.

This month, the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC), in a presentation to the portfolio committee on social development reported that 57.1% of women murdered in 2009 were killed by intimate partners. This not only represents an increase from 50.3% a decade earlier, but also is out of pattern with global statistics which indicate that 36.6% of female homicides around the world are carried out by intimate partners.  Another way of looking at this is that we would cut the murder rate of women in South Africa by more than half just by eliminating murders by intimate partners and so-called lovers.

When we think about Valentine’s Day, we often think about loving couples but being in a relationship does not mean someone is safe and being in a couple should not mean being isolated. We believe that as important as the couple forms part of the community.

On Friday, a man from Chafutweni is due in court for killing his partner in Idutywa in the Eastern Cape, on the same day she received a protection order. Community reports say that in December he stabbed his girlfriend to death after pulling her out of a taxi. Onlooker say that while the van was waiting for more passengers, the man pulled the woman out and stabbed her to death in front of commuters. We were informed by community leaders with whom we work that this man was released last week from custody without any bail payment or conditions. 

Reaching out to men

At Sonke Gender Justice, we engage men and boys around gender-based violence (GBV) and how they can take action to address it. Key to our approach is to encourage men to act on their conviction that the violence is wrong and has to be stopped by encouraging them to always take action when they see or suspect violence. We challenge the notion that domestic and sexual violence are private matters. We urge men to never be passive and silent bystanders to violence. 

Instead, Sonke calls on men to send a clear message to potential perpetrators that their violence will be challenged. In our work, we draw on the approaches of India’s Bell Bajao (“Ring the Bell”) and the US’s Green Dot, etc – sexual violence prevention approaches that call on third parties to do something. The philosophy is an important one to consider: in order to significantly reduce violence, we can’t just engage the potential perpetrators and victims, we need to enlist everyone. The idea is that in any violent encounter, there are all the other people, bystanders, observers, friends, neighbours – both men and women – who saw something, heard something or suspected something and in some cases could have done something.

We’re not talking about putting oneself in harm’s way. Every situation is different, and dangers have to be considered, but Green Dot, etc’s three Ds – Direct, Delegate or Distract strategy argues that even when one can’t do a “direct” intervention (like stepping in and saying or doing something), there are always options – like getting someone else to intervene (“delegate” it to a friend who feels more comfortable, call the police, speak to a teacher or a parent) or find a way to “distract”. A bystander intervention does not even need to be obvious – and that sometimes the way to help someone else stay safe without putting yourself at risk is to think creatively around how one might “distract” the potential perpetrator, or separate him from the potential victim or even calm the situation down. The organisation uses an example of a young man who told his friend his car was about to be towed when he saw him about to take a drunk girl into his room. The distractor’s friend ran outside to check on his car and the girl’s friends were able to take her home safely.

Don’t ignore the screams next door

We can’t tell you exactly what to do and it’s important you don’t put yourself in danger, but you cannot simply fold your arms and brush off the violence you suspect is happening in the home of a friend, colleague or family member. You can’t ignore the yells coming from the house next door, or simply watch as you see a situation that screams rape or gender-based violence unfolding. Spill something, yell, create a distraction, call the police (even if you don’t believe they will respond), gather your friends, do whatever you can safely do. Bell Bajao says ringing the doorbell when you hear a couple arguing will often stop violence from happening or getting worse.

Every time you see the red flag of gender-based violence, think about whether there’s something you can do to prevent another rape, another murder, another Anene Booysen or Reeva Steenkamp. Had someone spoken up to challenge the group of men who left the bar with Anene Booysen, the 17-year-old teenager from Bredasdorp, on the night of her rape and murder, or had accompanied her home, or had one of Oscar Pistorius’s friends conveyed their concern about his gun use instead of affirming it, both Anene and Reeva might still be alive.

Recently, we made a statement in this paper about the need for government to do more to address the epidemic of gender-based violence in South Africa. We specifically called on the National Council Against Gender-Based Violence to formulate a costed national strategic plan to comprehensively address GBV. We do believe that government has a key responsibility here. But we also believe there are things each of us can do to shift this culture of violence, and not only say “not in my name”, but also say (with actions) “not in my neighbourhood”, “not in my ear-shot” and “not on my watch”.

Rape and partner violence is not something that only happens in townships or rural communities, or to strangers or the poor. Anyone can be killed by a partner, whether you’re a Black rural woman in Idutywa or a White successful model in Pretoria, whether it’s the day of lovers, or just another day of the year.

Patrick Godana is the Government and Media Manager, Czerina Patel is a Communications Specialist and Dean Peacock is the Cofounder and Executive Director of Sonke Gender Justice.

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