The culture of gendered silencing: a comment on the 16 Days campaign

    Mandipa Ndlovu believes says it’s important not to underestimate the role of silence and force of culture in perpetuating the direct and systematic violence women face daily.

    This year, the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence runs from November 25 (International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women) until December 10 (International Human Rights Day). This initiative, commonly known as the “16 Days campaign”, was first founded in 1991 by the Women’s Global Leadership Institute and coordinated by the Center for Women’s Global Leadership. Over the years, it has become an initiative characterised by sporadic activism by governments, United Nations units, civil society organisations and concerned individuals for the aforementioned period. After this period, globally consistent critical engagement is relaxed and further tokenised or completely separated from policies and the relevant contexts that are crucial to curbing the prevalence of gender based violence until the next year.

    Mythicised notions of the effectiveness of popular activism must be thwarted in order to allow meaningful engagement with the issues at hand. Limited timeframes and the hype of short-lived campaigns blind other people from engaging on a daily basis.

    The feminisation of poverty

    Although the objective of the 16 Days campaign is never to be challenged, it is important to understand the factors within its framework that impede its practical implementation. The initiative was started by a Westernised organisation and thus cannot conceive the practicalities of being a woman on the African continent. It is important never to underestimate the role of silence and force of culture in perpetuating the direct and systematic violence women face daily. Although the experiences of African women are not homogenous, it is important to recognise the cultural intersections of systematic and traditional upbringing which continue to perpetuate the silence of those affected by gender based violence.

    Patriarchal myths continue to be the main driver for the lack of progression and subsequent subordination of women. For many rural women who are subjugated by these myths, the reality is that systems favour the education of a boy child over a girl child. This causes the immobility women face in their attempts leave rural areas to find capital and independence in urban areas. Following this, women’s agency continues to be quashed by that of the men of the home who have formal employment which equates to power through capital, although the women continue to be the heads of the home in the absence of the men. Though this is not a standardised experience for all (such as those in matriarchal societies), it remains imperative to note the overwhelming prevalence and the ingrained biases of patriarchy in African societies. Instead of addressing the dissonance between the two heads of the home (the caretaker and the caregiver) which often fuels the onset of gender based violence, campaigns like 16 Days of Activism often brush past the causes and are reactionary in their evaluation.

    Men matter

    Gendered identities outside that of those who identify as a “woman” are often lost in the current narrative of gender based violence. According to the United Nations, gender-based violence is “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or mental harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life”. There is an urgent need to correct the erroneous placement of women and girls as the poster faces of “gender”. As is with the silence faced by women, men who are victims of gender based violence continuously keep quiet. This is vital to maintaining the propagated norms of “the man” as the hegemonic iron figure who is never subject to assault, as this funds the existence of hypermasculine hegemonic existence.

    More attention thus needs to be paid to gender based violence as an occurrence to bodies across genders with the variance of asymmetric power as the determinant for abuse. In manipulating core concepts used in framing the initiative, the campaign has managed to preserve cognitive biases associated with gender as an appropriated term. This creates an exclusionary culture which perpetuates a silenced violence that subsequently becomes omitted from the legitimised platform of gendered violence.

    It is simply not enough to ignore poignant issues of gender based violence, such as the feminisation of poverty and the existence of gendered violence outside that which affects women and girls for the remaining 349 days of the year. Safe spaces need to be created in order to allow those survivors and victims of gender-based violence who wish to come forward, to engage with their pain outside the location of cultural suppression. Civil society needs to build stronger ties with national governments in order to conscientise and involve civilians and indigenous leaders for the integration and implementation of progressive policies.

    Moreover, there needs to be more attention paid to indigenous practices that protect women. Living customary law practised by indigenous peoples which encompasses democratic, anti-violence and feminist customary practices needs to be strengthened and revived in efforts to quash the dominant system of Westernised thought. It remains vital to have an intersecting and inter-educational interaction between Western knowledge and indigenous knowledges that best suit varied contexts.

    It is not enough for gender just solutions to be brought to the worldwide table for serious discussion for a quantified period of time; only to be tokenised agendas and surface level engagement with possible agents of change for the rest of the year. The time where the engagement with gender is gendered and the subsequent narrative is overshadowed by a stereotyped understanding of the basic feminist concept of intersectionality is over.

    Mandipa Ndlovu is a volunteer intern at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) under the Building an Inclusive Society Programme. Mandipa is a Bachelor of Social Science (Honours) candidate for the specialisation in Justice and Transformation at UCT.

    Featured image by Lizeka Maduna