Law on its own can’t fight gender based violence

Panelists Nonhle Skosana, Salma Said and Fabiola Leal.

Three feminists from different parts of the world and speaking on a panel hosted by the Tshisimani Centre for Activist Education, argued that strict laws are not a deterrent to gender-based violence and rape.

The law on its own is not enough to fight or deter gender-based violence and rape was a consensus reached by Fabiola Leal from Brazil, Nonhle Skosana from South Africa and Salma Said from Egypt, panelists at a seminar on feminism held at Tshisimani Centre for Activist Education.

“The law on its own is not successful in deterring gender based violence,” said Salma, an activist and member of revolutionary film collective, Mosireen. The group has produced a documentary on gender-based violence and rape during the occupation of Tahrir Square in Egypt in 2011. “The most difficult place to be a women is in Cairo, Egypt,” said Said as she introduced herself.

“During the revolution in Tahrir Square women were raped by mobs and it was difficult to say why they were doing it,” she said. In January 2011, about 50,000 people started to occupy Tahrir Square in Cairo. She said that the army subjected women to virginity testing during the occupation, allegedly to “protect” them. “They used the justification that this would allow them to tell if she was raped in jail or not,” stated Said.

Women then organised women to protect themselves and fight back. “We formed a safety group; there were 22 women initially still working on how to co-ordinate while greatly outnumbered by the mobs. They distributed fliers with numbers for people to report incidents. The aim was to get women and girls out to hospitals or safe houses. A 19-year-old girl was raped with knives, and was taken to the hospital [where] she was hidden for her safety. No one recognizes the heroism and sacrifice of these women.”

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The occupation of Tahrir Square led to a coup and by that time, Said said that about 200 people had joined the safety group and that more than 80 attacks were prevented.

Speaking through a translator, Fabiola Leal from the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL) told the crowd that in Brazil women suffer a high rate of physical violence. “Every 7.2 seconds a woman suffers physical violence and that in 2015 rape took place every 11 minutes,” said the 24-year-old. Leal worked closely with Marielle Franco, a black lesbian human rights activist and local government councillor who was assassinated in 2014.

“In Brazil black women are still fighting for the most basic rights. Of the women killed in 2016 75% were black, and young black women have twice the chance of being assassinated than white women,” said Leal.

Leal said the assassination of Marielle Franco taught them important lessons about the struggle. “Her execution taught us that the struggle will not be easy and that men see women’s bodies as their possessions, especially when they dare to occupy non-traditional spaces.”

Franco was an outspoken critic of police brutality and she was fiercely against Temer’s intervention in the State of Rio de Janeiro that resulted in the deployment of the army. Leal said that as feminists and gender activists they had marched against the impeachment of Brazil’s first women president, Dilma Rousseff.

As well as such overtly political actions, according to Leal they started campaigns like “My first sexual harassment” and “My secret friend”  to expose men’s behaviour. “This brought forth 90,000 reports of abuse, and started a movement that was dubbed the ‘Spring of the Women’,” she said.

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Journalist Nonhle Skosana who was part of the #FeesMustFall and #RUReference list movements at Rhodes University (a list of accused rapists at Rhodes University that they released on social media to demand that the university deal decisively with gender-based violence and rape on campus) reflected on the subjection of women at the institution. The university, according to Skosana, has a comprehensive policy to combat plagiarism but has not made the same effort to curb rape and gender-based violence on campus.

“Students were more likely to be expelled for plagiarism than sexual assault at Rhodes University, and when posters were put up to this effect, they were removed by management,” she said.

Skosana argued that the perception of women as unreasonable or irrational is deeply rooted because society continues to uphold patriarchal norms. Rape is an act of power perpetrated by men in whose defense the criminal justice system allows for the victims’ character and morality to be interrogated and attacked. This was evident, she said, in the Jacob Zuma rape trial and the complete undermining of Khwezi’s agency, voice and credibility.

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