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How can we end the rape epidemic when we consistently ignore the insights that come from anti-rape activists?

Several years ago, at a One in Nine Campaign protest, an activist held up a placard which read, “we’re not just faces and vaginas”. This has remained in my mind’s eye. It captured the frustrating lip-service paid to patriarchal oppression in SA, a country whose public discourse is saturated with challenges to patriarchy and changing women’s lives.

For people who spend a lot of time discussing gender power, we have made little headway in creating a more equitable society. This is largely because of the failure of institutions and society to move beyond mere talk, and the constant watering down of demands for real change.

Real change is institutional change and this is going to require consistent attention to feminist demands for structural change. Large-scale recourse to philanthropy, well-intentioned as it is, usually works to keep oppressive systems in place.

We have just come out of Mandela month and are almost upon the anniversary of the 1956 Women’s March to the Union Buildings. The deluge of invitations, public awareness campaigns and events to mark Women’s Month is upon us.

Each August, SA finds itself in the grip of a countrywide fever to pay attention to women and “women’s issues” because of this historic march. On the surface, this flurry of activity appears to point to collective pressure to take women seriously as individuals and as a group to ensure the elimination of such issues. In other words, recognising the existence of “issues” that affect and impede women should be an invitation to attend to such “issues” en masse and with seriousness.

We understand from the work of feminist thinkers such as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak that oppressive systems survive by adapting and mutating. Part of this mutation is through co-opting the language of radical movements. There may be talk of “women’s issues” everywhere in August, but only those issues that reduce women to faces and vaginas receive piecemeal attention.

This explains the current circulation of the phrase “women’s issues” in ways that are vague, and often dismissive, except for the identification of representation, violence or menstruation. Thus, the phrase “women’s issues” becomes a way of avoiding feminist calls to address the many facets of patriarchal marginalisation and violence that ensure that patriarchy continues to mutate.

The women’s march recognised the importance of addressing institutional change, by posing a challenge to how structures order our society. In 1956, women were clear in their identification of the issues. They demanded more than lip-service. Women’s issues included legal, political, financial, societal and spatial changes. This is why women’s freedom of movement remains at the core of understanding women’s issues.

Instead, there continues to be superficial attention to patriarchal oppression, preferably only in March, August and 16 days at the end of the year. And such attention is limited to more women speakers and faces on calendars, sanitary protection donation drives and faux horror at the scale of violence targeted at women and children.

Several years ago, the Total Shutdown Movement laid out plans for practical systemic changes necessary to move the needle on gender power. While “period poverty” is on everybody’s lips and donation drives are on the rise, there is scant attention paid to the concrete suggestions made by the activists who alerted us to the scale of the problem. It is easier to collect pads for donation than to work to create a school system in which pads, and meals, and books, are easily available. This would be structural change, not lip-service.

But why would pads, tampons and menstrual cups be freely available in a country where so much shame is attached to living in bodies seen as feminine? When women cannot move freely in schools, workplaces, homes or streets without constant unwanted male correction, attention and threat, we are nowhere near addressing what makes rape so endemic. A society that terrorises women is a society in which rape is widespread.

What about addressing the conditions that result in so many women being unable to afford sanitary protection? Such conditions have everything to do with structures of the economy, the ways in which government departments abdicate responsibility, including amplifying poverty and shame in the systematic breaking down of public health and education structures in our contemporary society.

How can we end the rape epidemic when we consistently ignore the insights that come from antirape activists and scholars on how to ensure institutional change and pretend rape is an isolated, inexplicable event that concerns vaginas?

Many women argue for the scrapping of Women’s Month given our widespread experience of its marking as a farce. The veil continues to wear thin on this as a month that makes a mockery of the demands of the women it claims to honour. It has once again become fashionable for men to unironically take up excessive space at such events to shame women leaders, offer instructions on what women would do if “they were not their own worst enemies”, mansplain and partake in other patriarchal behaviour.

My dream for this Women’s Month is to see a different articulation to women’s fatigue at the unironic large-scale patriarchal feeding frenzy.

This article was published in the Sundays Times on 7 August 2020. Professor Pumla Dineo Gqola is an author and Research Professor in the Centre for Women and Gender Studies and Chair for African Feminist Imaginations at Nelson Mandela University. Her latest book is ‘Female Fear Factory’.