It takes more than a hashtag to end violence

While men will never truly be able to understand the struggles of women, we can play a role in stopping gender violence, writes Ryland Fisher.

Women have always played a major role in my life. Being the youngest of five children, I was close to my mother and interacted mainly with my two sisters because of the age gap between my brothers and me.

For most of my adult life, I have lived with my wife and three daughters. At some point, I even had four female cats. But I digress.

In many ways, these experiences have sensitised me to women’s issues, but I can never ever claim to be able to understand what women are going through in our society.

The recent reported spate of violent, if not brutal, incidents against women occupied much of my thoughts this week.

I’ve used the word “reported” because I believe that women throughout South Africa suffer violent abuse on a daily basis but most of these incidents are never reported in the media.

It often takes something outrageous - like the horrendous killing of a beautiful young woman, allegedly by her boyfriend - to grab the attention of the media.

I keep on asking myself: What is wrong with our society that we allow acts such as these to happen? And, what can we - men and women - do to stop this?

“What is wrong with us” is probably easier to answer than “What can we do about it”.

It is easy to blame apartheid for much of what remains wrong with our society today, and there are people who roll their eyes when one does that. “How can you still talk about apartheid 23 years after we have become a democracy?” they ask.

But apartheid is still very much with us, and not only in the dormitory townships that will take generations to undo, or the huge number of skilled and unskilled people unable to find work, often because they happen to be the wrong skin colour.

The most damaging thing apartheid did to our society was to dehumanise most of our people. It is easy to discriminate against people if you consider them less than human. So, when police went into townships and beat up protesters, they could do this without feeling anything for the people they were beating up. In their minds, they were not beating up people, because only whites qualified to be people.

When security police had a braai after burning the body of an anti-apartheid activist, they could do so without feeling any irony because, in their minds, they considered the anti-apartheid activist to have been less than human.

And when these same policemen went home at night, dined with their families, read their children bedtime stories and kissed them goodnight, they did not think about the impact of what they did during the day because they only “took care” of sub-humans.

Throughout society we create pyramids or ladders, in which we attach more importance to some people than to others; and how much respect we accord you depends on where you find yourself on this pyramid. In many cases, women are at the bottom end. Women are meant to respect men, but men are not necessarily expected to respect women.

Unfortunately, there are many people, not only men, who think women are lesser beings than men. Often, this is what they learn through religious teachings. This is probably one of the reasons why some people think it is normal for a man to “put a woman in her place”.

Have you ever seen a women colleague with a black eye, which she claimed happened when she fell against the stairs? Or have you ever heard the noise from a neighbouring flat where clearly a woman is being beaten by her partner, and yet did nothing about it? This is not unusual but it makes you party to abuse.

My advice to my daughters and to other women I know has always been: if he starts abusing you, even if not physically at first, it is time to move on. Don’t ever believe that he will change and things will improve.

It was not a mistake that he hit you and he will probably do it again, and maybe even more severely. Your best defence against abuse is to get out of the relationship and to report the abuse, even if we know the police often do nothing about it.

As a man, I have a duty to be respectful towards everyone around me, especially women.

While I can never assume the right to protect women - that would be condescending in a way - I can help create awareness among other men about the rights of women. I can speak out when I suspect abuse, and report it if necessary, and I can try to show women that there are some men who care.

While men will never truly be able to understand the struggles of women, we can play a role in stopping gender violence - and we do not have to wait for 16 days in December to do so. Now is as good a time as any to start, but it needs to go beyond a hashtag.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday, 20 May 2017)