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The Saartjie Baartman Centre for Women and Children responds to Julius Malema

10 February 2009
After more than a decade of democracy and a constitution that enshrines the rights of each human being in this country, can South Africa still afford leaders who cannot or will not accept every person’s fundamental right to equality, especially to equality of treatment and respect?

This is the question we have been asking ourselves at the Saartjie Baartman Centre for Women and Children over the last couple of weeks.

How helpful is it, in a country with one of the highest rates of domestic and sexual violence in the world, for Julius Malema to suggest to students that the woman who accused Jacob Zuma of rape had “a nice time” with him? Or, a day earlier, for Malema to tell learners in Grabouw that teenage mothers would be punished and sent to special boarding schools (echoing similar statements made by Jacob Zuma last year)?

What does it do to a woman’s sense of self worth when she is the one held responsible for situations that she often has no control over?

At the Saartjie Baartman Centre, our intake counsellors daily see a steady stream of women who come to ask for help, because they are being physically, emotionally or sexually abused by their partners. All the shelters in Cape Town are overflowing with women and children who can no longer live safely at home. Many of the stories these women tell are distressingly similar: “he wouldn’t beat me if he didn’t love me”; “he is always telling me that I’m a useless mother and wife, so I suppose I deserve to be punished”; “my mother told me this is a woman’s lot, so I have to put up with it”.

The majority of South Africans over the age of 30 should know only too well what it does to one’s sense of self to be treated as “other”; to be infantalised, humiliated, spoken to with disrespect, allowed only a circumscribed voice and even then not really taken seriously. Now, nearly 15 years into our democracy, when much has been done to condemn and rectify the terrible racist injustices of the past, why is it still so acceptable to treat half the South African population as “other”; infantalised, humiliated, disrespected, allowed a voice as long as it deals with “women’s issues” and then not really taken seriously?

Is it far-fetched to suggest that patriarchy does to women what apartheid racism did to black people? Of course one difference is that sexism is not legislated as racism was. But attitudes and beliefs about the roles of women and men, taught largely through our cultures and religions, are so deeply rooted in our psyches that at times it feels as though it might as well be law.

Take the issue of pregnant teenagers, for example. It is taken for granted by so many people that if girls get pregnant, it’s their fault. Not only have they engaged in sex at far too young an age, or outside of marriage, but they have also not taken the responsibility of saying no or at least using contraceptives. However, if one looks at the results of research done in 2004 which surveyed the views on sexual violence

amongst nearly 300 000 learners aged 11-19 across South Africa(1), one realizes that girls often do not have a choice when it comes to sexual relationships.

Nearly a third of the children believed that girls do not have the right to refuse sex with their boyfriend. More than a quarter said girls enjoy rape and a slightly higher number said that you have to have sex with a boyfriend or girlfriend to show that you loved them. Over half the learners believed that forcing sex with someone you know was not sexual violence.

These findings confirm the results of an earlier study in which 24 pregnant teenagers were asked about their experiences(2). First sexual encounters for most of them started at a young age, often around 12 years, with the male being about five years older. The young men consistently asked for a relationship where ‘we could love each other’, which the young women understood to mean being sexually available. The equation of love = sex was learnt from their male partners, who told them that sex was the ‘purpose’ of being ‘in love’ and that people ‘in love’ must have sex ‘as often as possible’.

Attempts at resistance on the part of the young women were often met with violence, which included forcing legs apart, tearing off clothes, punching with fists and locking the door.

Some of the young women had gone to family planning clinics to get contraceptives, but their partners had torn up their clinic cards.

Peer pressure paid a large part in keeping the young women in these relationships – ‘I don’t want to be the only one without a boyfriend’ – as did material gifts from their partners.

Despite the findings of these studies, which indicate the clear power differences and inequalities that patriarchal attitudes breed, it is important not to position women as helpless victims only. While male violence makes resistance a complex issue, women are questioning traditional religious teachings and cultural practices that seek to keep them submissive and silent. Most of the women who come through our shelter find the space in which to discover their strengths and capabilities, or have their already self-found strengths affirmed.

Those who work in the field of transformational development acknowledge how difficult it is for most of us to shift our deeply entrenched attitudes and beliefs – especially around gender, race and class. It is hard to accept that cultural and religious values that we hold dear and which are mostly very positive in our lives, can nevertheless lead us to beliefs that are harmful to one or other group of people. Whoever believes that he or she has a right to power and control over another because of cultural or religious teachings stands the risk of becoming an abuser of those perceived to be weaker or different, whether those people are women, children, people with different skin colour or from another country, or living in poverty.

1. Julius Malema is president of the ANC Youth League who has become notorius for making public statements that are hugely disrespectful of the rights of others, beginning with his now infamous avowal that he would kill for Zuma.

2. Andersson N, et al. National cross sectional study of views on sexual violence and risk of HIV infection and AIDS among South African school pupils. British Medical Journal 2004;329: 952

3. Wood K, Maforah F & Jewkes R. Sex, violence and constructions of love among Xhosa adolescents: putting violence on the sexuality education agenda. MRC 1996