16 Days of Activism for No Violence against Women and Children Campaign: Rethinking Power and Basic Human Rights

By Angeline Stephens, PhD

The theme for this year’s 16 Days of Activism for No Violence against Women and Children Campaign, “Accelerating actions to end gender-based violence & femicide: leaving no one behind,” along with the sub-theme, “Safe access for women to clean water: a basic human right”, is unsettling in its call for the fulfilment of a basic human right. It is unsettling in its shocking and shameful reminder that basic human rights are issues that we still need to fight for despite all the technological advancements of the fourth industrial revolution.

However, as I reflect on this theme, I am compelled to also reflect on the current genocide and violence in Palestine, where the majority of those who have died thus far are women and children. In a recent news report on Al Jazeera, it was reported that the concern now is not the incessant bombing that continues to kill people every day, but the threat of disease and death due to the lack of access to water, sanitation, food, medical supplies and medical care. The most vulnerable here are the children.

I reference what is happening in Palestine because the 16 Days of Activism is a United Nations campaign and thus reminds us of the global scale of violence against women, children and marginalised groups. A critical question that we must ask in seeking to end violence and femicide against women and children is, what sustains violence? Thus I also reference the current violence in Palestine because it brings into sharp focus the centrality of power in enacting and sustaining violence.

What the sub-theme for this year’s campaign highlights is that violence and power go beyond the physical enactment of violence to include other forms of violence. One such form of violence is economic violence which plays a critical role in maintaining the economic power base of some and the economic oppression of others and which underpins much of the violence that women and children experience. Economic oppression is a powerful mechanism that essentially dehumanises oppressed people and reduces oppressed people to being less than human.

A critical look at the United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) reveals that economic empowerment is necessary to attain most, if not all, the SGDs. Economic oppression is inextricably linked to political, social and historical oppression. However, if the link between the violence of economic oppression and other forms of violence is not explicitly foregrounded, then policy reform and resource allocation that works to address violence as a whole, will be limited.

In South Africa, women and children in mostly rural areas still do not have access to clean water and sanitation. While there are reports that record improvements in this area, the issue of access to water is often framed in relation to the water crisis and climate crisis, and its role in sustainable development. In instances where access to clean water is recognised as a basic human right, this recognition fails to recognise such lack of access as being symptomatic of a larger form of oppression and violence.

What this denial effectively does is to minimise or discount the psychological impact of economic violence on women and children, both in terms of its dehumanising effects, as well as its link to other more explicit forms of physical violence such as sexual violence, sexual favours and human trafficking.

Consequently, our responses to violence and femicide against women and children tend to be reactive and occur ‘after-the fact’. For example, the Domestic Violence Amendment Act 2021 (DVAA), in tandem with the Criminal and Related Matters Amendment Act, and the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Act, aims to strengthen the protection and support of vulnerable persons, and increase the scope for reporting and monitoring. However, these Acts focus on what happens after an incident of violence. While reporting and accountability are important in the understanding the complexity of violence, it would be equally important to ensure that such reporting does not simply equate to forms of surveillance. This is especially pertinent in light of the framing of the victims and survivors of violence as being vulnerable, without critically questioning how such vulnerability is created and sustained.

More proactive and preventative measures that are based on a critical understanding of violence against women, children and other marginalised groups, including persons with disabilities and gender and sexually non-conforming persons, takes us back to the issue of power. The issue of power becomes even more magnified when we consider persons who experience multiple oppressions. What do we need to do differently to change our responses to include more empowering ones that tackle the root causes of violence against women, children and other marginalised persons?

Pillar 5 of the National Strategic Plan on Gender-based Violence and Femicide (NSP GBVF), recognises “Economic Power” as a driver in addressing the enduring acts of violence that target women, children and other marginalised and vulnerable persons. However, I question its order and positioning as Pillar 5 out of six pillars. What might this suggest about how we understand and conceptualise the role of economic power in the eradication of violence?

Pillar 5 states as its “Economic Empowerment Outcome” that “Women, children and LGBTQIA+ persons are able to be free in public spaces, use transport freely and access resources that enable them to make healthy choices in their lives”. I contend that this outcome is limited in its scope of economic empowerment. It speaks to the freedom of movement, access to resources and making “healthy choices” and a set of accompanying deliverables.

While the inclusion of economic empowerment in the national strategy to address GBV and femicide is commendable and is certainly on the right track, many of its deliverables seem to lack teeth. For example, it uses language such as “Support and encourage the role of women, persons with disabilities and LGBTQIA+ persons as leaders in all sectors of society”, and “Raise awareness of women’s unpaid labour” but sets aside only 40% for the development of women, youth and SMMEs. What are the tangible ways in which marginalised groups are empowered to assume full economic freedom to make “healthy choices”? What do healthy choices actually refer to? And from whose perspective would such choices be considered to be healthy?

The point that I am making is that while our approaches to fighting GBV and femicide against women, children and marginalised groups do recognise some salient drivers of violence, our approaches do not adequately seek to dismantle drivers that are central to the enactment of violence. Economic empowerment and its enmeshment with power cannot be regarded as being separate from social cohesion and changing cultural and social norms. Fostering social cohesion requires that we recognise the intersections of the political, social, historical and the economic, and the institutions that sustain gender, economic and social inequities. These intersections must be mindfully and consciously responded to in our campaigns to end violence. Unless we actively and consistently strive to dismantle the multiple forms of power and violence within society, those who are positioned in less powerful ways will continue to be violated and oppressed in multiple ways. We will continue to assume by-stander roles while the violence, suffering, oppression and death continue.

Angeline Stephens, PhD (she/her) is a psychologist who works in student mental health in the College of Humanities, University of KwaZulu-Natal. She is also an executive member of the Sexuality and Gender division of the Psychological Society of South Africa (PsySSA). Her work is informed by feminist, critical and decolonial approaches to psychological praxis that recognises the interconnectedness between persons and contexts. She is particularly interested in the intersections of gender, sexuality, violence, citizenship, and work with marginalised people.

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