Originally posted on The Maverick Journal on June 9, 2016
Words and actions matter, and when violence is used as a threat or is unfolding right there in front of you then it is the responsibility of people everywhere to not only call it out and denounce it but to take action when they can. This past week a friend of mine did just that. She shared her experience on Facebook regarding a violent act against a young woman she had encountered while reporting in the small town of Tembisa in Gauteng, South Africa:
As we were driving from out shoot in Tembisa we spotted a young girl being dragged by the hair by a man in the street. She kept falling succumbing to the blows to her head and face and he would rain down kicks to her body and head. With each blow he promised to stab her, rape her, and leave her for dead. We stopped the car and tried to create a barrier between them. Our cameramen and driver, Mandla, Refilwe, and Petros, were trying to restrain him. For more than half an hour we played catch and mouse trying to protect her, protect ourselves from the bottle that was being wielding as a stabbing weapon, and trying to convince him not to kill her. Rofhiwa landed on the floor at some point using her body as shield. I tried the police incessantly. I managed to get through but all the officer was interested in was whether this was a lovers brawl or not. Eventually we had to give her an escape option. We bundled into our car and tried to find the police station. We drove in circles with no luck and in the end gave her R8 to take a taxi home. We drove off and as we took the corner leading to the main road, he appeared…We couldn’t see her and just prayed he gotten into the taxi. We don’t know if we saved a life today or if the day will end with her death. (Posted June 3, 2016 Nozipho Mbanjwa, CNBC Africa Anchor)
The situation my friend describes is terrifying. What was going through this young woman’s mind at the time? Did she fear for her life? Was this normal behavior that she has been forced to endure day after day? Did she look for escape? I can’t imagine what she was thinking or feeling but I have no doubt that my friend’s actions and those of her crew might have potentially saved her life – if even for one day.
And therein lies the problem. Whether violence is unimaginably physically abusively, psychological or emotion or encoded in language, cultural interpretation, and policy, it is everywhere.
It doesn’t matter if you are walking in a small rural village in South Africa or along the streets of a “civilized” metropolitan city. Films glorify it and marketers use it to promote their business. Not only has violence come to be expected in everyday life, but it is now codified into the way we speak about and look at the world and domestic and national policies around us. For many, violence is the only way they know how to communicate. And for the few and powerful, it is the only way they know how to coalesce supporters to their side.
For too many women and girls in the world violence is a way of life. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that nearly 1 in 3 women experience sexual or physical violence at least once in their lifetime. In some countries this rate jumps to 70%. Violence can take any form, but for women it manifests itself in some of the horrifying ways: domestic violence, sexual violence and exploitation (rape and sex trafficking), body mutilation (acid attacks, stoning, and genital mutilation), reproductive and healthcare restrictions, and financial exploitation.
If you take that statistic and apply it to the people around you, there’s a very good chance you know someone who is currently being abused. Unlike uncontentious acts of sexual violence issues, such as sex trafficking and gang rape you often see on the news, a good portion of women suffer in silence because the fear of being labelled a slut or the perpetual victim who deserved it or even having their abuse trivialized as “not that bad” or excused as a fallout of alcohol abuse by our hyper-masculine culture is worse than the abuse itself. Whereas the Tembisa image immediately elicits condemnation, women that experience more institutionalized forms of violence, such as domestic violence, campus assault, and rape by a partner or friend, are forced to tread cautiously in a system that rewards the abuser and punishes the victim.
And if a woman does choose to speak out she is put in the “crazy” box or denounced as a liar. Just look at how the media and public handled the Cosby assault scandal.
No other recent incident better demonstrates this than the unfolding of the Cosby sexual abuse scandal and the fact that it took decades before even one of the assaults was brought to trial. The NY Mag’s in depth profile of 35 women stories of assault showed repeated instances of a culture and legal system that failed to protect their rights and prevent future victims. The fact is we shouldn’t need so many women to tell similar stories before we even start to consider the possibility that Cosby might be the abuser they claim him to be. One accuser should be enough for a case of assault to be taken seriously.
Sexual violence is an appalling crime. It’s hard to wrap your mind around it and for the longest time people chose to ignore or excuse it. It’s is an uncomfortable truth for many who choose to not believe the victim because to do so would admit just how prevalent the crime is in today’s world. If we did then we would have to admit that nearly 1 in 3 of every women we meet has been a victim at one time or another. Maybe that’s why we demand evidence, testimony, and victims that suit our narrative of innocence and undeserved.
No one can know what happened to that young girl from my friend’s story. But instead of brushing it aside, as we do for so many stories both at home and abroad, we can acknowledge it in any way we can and make sure that victims unable to defend themselves or tell their story are still heard.