Although the end of apartheid in South Africa was hailed as a victory for human rights, the country is home to one of the world’s highest levels of violent crime. Recent reports suggest that women are disproportionately likely to bear the brunt of such violence. Human Rights Dialogue talked with Christopher Harper, a counseling psychologist at Masimanyane Women’s Support Centre, a nongovernmental organization in East London, South Africa, that addresses gender-based violence against women and girls from a human rights perspective.
Dialogue: What kind of violence are women in South Africa facing today?
Harper: Violence against women has been described as the most extreme expression of the gender inequality that underscores social relations in South Africa. This violence exists in numerous forms, and it has been estimated that one in four South African women are victims of gender-based violence. The major issues that we at Masimanyane address include domestic violence, rape, sexual abuse, HIV/AIDS, and child abuse.
Dialogue: Has apartheid played a role in this violence?
Harper: Yes, definitely. The legitimization of violence under apartheid, as a means both of enforcing apartheid and as a form of resistance, has contributed to these high levels of violence. Apartheid diminished people’s perceptions both of the value of their own lives and of others’ lives, and did not foster a culture of respect or human rights at all. The means for quelling conflict was violence, and that approach can be seen as almost an adopted culture in this country now. Apartheid’s effects on the nature of family life and the socioeconomic conditions people live under clearly continue to impact individual and communal life.
But at the same time, violence against women is not merely a postapartheid occurrence. It was always part of South Africa’s social fabric in all cultures and racial groupings; it was just kept quiet. During apartheid, violence against women in the black community was often placed on the back burner as the focus was on the struggle for freedom. Violence in the white community was also silenced—especially incest and marital rape—because the white community had to have an image of “decency” and “civilization.” This has led to debate as to whether there has been an increase in violence since 1994 or whether people are just talking about it more now.
Dialogue: How is Masimanyane addressing these issues of violence?
Harper: When Masimanyane was established, the initial focus of the center was to provide support services to women and girls who are victims of domestic and sexual violence. However, we soon recognized that if we were to address the issue of violence against women in a more effective, holistic way, a political, gender, and human rights perspective needed to be used. So we extended our programs to include community outreach programs, public education and training, advocacy and lobbying linked to research, as well as a program of working with men. Our efforts involve everything from crisis intervention and long-term counseling to human rights and democracy training for communities.
Dialogue: Tell us more about the men’s program.
Harper: Our Men’s Project is not just a program for perpetrators but one that encourages nonviolent men to become active in the struggle for gender equality and the eradication of violence against women and girls. The project emphasizes the need for men to work alongside women in order to change the value systems that oppress women and children and dehumanize men themselves.
So, since the start of the project, the focus has been on public education and training programs, which aim to give men an understanding of the realities of women’s lives. We have conducted this training in rural and urban settings with teachers, prison officials, trade unionists, representatives from civil society and community organizations, and members of the clergy.
Recently, we have seen an exponential increase in the number of organizations running men’s programs. But the principles underlying the work with men throughout the country are not similar and at times they have been very disparate. These principles range from the pro-feminist perspective to those based on traditional patriarchal views of masculinity. The difficulty with the programs based on a traditional view of masculinity is that they fail to make the links between women’s continued experience of violence and discrimination in the country and wider social, economic, and political concerns.
Dialogue: How is violence against women perceived in South African society?
Harper: While certain incidences of violence may cause the country to experience a monetary sense of outrage, women’s experiences of violence are generally met with silence. Although people recognize the importance and value of human rights, cultural and religious objections are frequently raised to the question of women’s rights. This clearly contributes to a public/private divide that makes it difficult to address issues believed to be personal or domestic matters only. Many people have told us, “Human rights are fine for other issues, but don’t talk to me about things that happen in my own house.”
Dialogue: Does the postcolonial context have anything to do with this?
Harper: Yes, without a doubt. There is a movement today to redefine what African culture and values mean and to search for an authentic, precolonial African culture. Sometimes, however, when people talk of “going back” to traditional cultural values, they fail to recognize the impact of changes in the landscape of people’s lives. This also affects the meaning of cultural practices. For example, the bride price practice known as lobola was once about establishing kinship, but it has come to be seen by many as the act of purchasing a wife. Many men use this as a justification for their violence. So it is important to show people what the original meaning of a custom was and how that meaning has gotten distorted in systems that protect men’s positions.
Also, some people believe that men’s roles and views of themselves became deeply distorted after years of colonialism and apartheid. Violence is seen as a way to reestablish themselves in a position of power in their homes. We have heard this often from men who have had to leave home to find work elsewhere, especially in the mines. When they have returned home they have found that their wives have taken on the primary parent role and this has been very difficult for many men to deal with.
Dialogue: What about the argument that human rights concepts interfere with culture—do you come across this?
Harper: When I was a Carnegie Council fellow three years ago, I researched the legitimacy of women’s human rights in the Eastern Cape, and it struck me that the only time people brought up the problem of human rights hindering indigenous culture was when they were asked about women’s rights. The men who were not supportive of women’s rights viewed culture as static. They talked about women’s human rights as though they were scared of losing their perceived authority. But whether or not this is an issue of cultural legitimacy is uncertain, as equal numbers of men spoke about the value that their culture places on women’s lives and said that traditional mechanisms were in place to ensure that sanctions were enforced against any man who was violent toward his wife. Similar sanctions were in place against rape.
Dialogue: How do you go about changing these perceptions?
Harper: At our workshops, when people bring up the idea that human rights are an imperialist and western concept, we try to discuss South Africa’s history of apartheid and the importance of human rights concepts in the struggle for equality for all South Africans. We also try to relate human rights to African traditions and concepts, such as ubuntu, which implies the idea of respect and dignity for others. We ask people to define the core values of their culture and we use those to say, “Well, this is exactly what the human rights framework is all about—respect and dignity for other people.”
But what disturbs me is how few other men working in the field of addressing violence against women use the human rights discourse. We find people talking about the need to end violence, but they are not addressing it in a larger social context—they don’t speak about the patriarchal system or about women’s economic and social positions. They just say that we need to end the violence. I think they find using a human rights framework difficult. When male activists that are organizing to end violence against women say things like, “It’s a man’s place to be head of the home”—and when these activists believe this—you can see that it is difficult for them to use a human rights framework that challenges them on those sorts of issues.
Dialogue: Have you seen progress from Masimanyane’s human rights work?
Harper: I think we’ve had a major impact on people’s lives. Our work has provided the opportunity for women to improve their own lives by leaving abusive environments, and to find support and a voice where they were denied one before. We have also played important roles in the formation of legislation to improve women’s lives and hold the government accountable for their actions. And in our work with men, we’ve been able to witness men working alongside women in local communities to end violence against women. They are engaging with other men in their communities, challenging them to stop their violence.