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Op-eds

Activism against gender-based violence begins at home

  • BonitaMeyersfeld2 WHITE
Violence against women and girls is a pandemic. A conservative estimate is that more than 35% percent of women worldwide experience physical or sexual violence from men in their lifetime. The majority of perpetrators are husbands, intimate partners, or someone the women know.
by BONITA MEYERSFELD | Dec 06, 2018

The United Nations-sanctioned 16 days of activism seems a trite response to one of the largest social harms worldwide. But it does provide an opportunity to raise awareness of a problem that is among the world’s most serious human-rights violations.

And, it is an extreme human-rights violation, recognised by the UN as a form of torture. Among women aged 15 to 44, acts of intimate violence cause more death and disability than cancer, malaria, traffic accidents, and war combined. Homes become prisons from which victims cannot escape, sometimes because they have nowhere to go, or because no-one believes them. Often it is because the blow that crushes a cheekbone or a rib or an arm also crushes the spirit. And a crushed spirit is its own form of imprisonment.

Of course, physical violence is only one manifestation of violence against women. Emotional abuse is often as damaging as physical abuse. Financial abuse, controlling behaviour, extreme jealousy, outbursts of anger that threaten violence, these are all forms of gender-based violence. All of them hurt. All of them are prohibited by law.

What is vital is the recognition that it is a feature of our community. We are not immune. This is unpalatable, but it is the truth. Violence against women in the Jewish community not only exists, but can also be extreme. There will be people reading this who know they suffer from – or perpetrate – some form of domestic violence.

How do we respond to this as a community? The most powerful initial step we can take is to stop the silence. There are ways we can do this that demand little from us. We can, for example, host an evening with friends where we watch Once Were Warriors or Sleeping with the Enemy and discuss it afterwards. We can decide to read The Woman Who Walked into Doors in our book clubs. We can make our shiurim about violence against women. We can call out people making sexist jokes or those who make light of violence.

There are also some tougher steps we can take. These demand more from us personally. We can set ourselves targets. Men can set a target of asking 16 men over the 16 days whether they have ever hit a woman. Women can ask other women if they have ever been hit. We should ask this not only because we need to discuss the answer, but because we need to break the taboo around the problem. People will get angry at being asked this. So, introduce the question within the context of 16 days of activism. Say that you have set yourself a target, as a man, of asking 16 other men whether or not they have hit a woman, and offer to talk about it if they have.

Or, you can ask your sister, mother, daughter, if they have ever been hit. And then listen to them when they answer.

I started working in the area of gender-based violence more than 20 years ago as a lawyer giving victims legal advice. My most effective role, however, was not as a lawyer; it was as someone who asked the hard questions, and then listened to the answers. I would always ask, “Do you know that what is happening to you is wrong?” The answer would be a quiet, tentative response, “Really?”

Yes, really. What is happening to women in South Africa, and in our community, is wrong. How we respond to it is within our control. We can choose silence, or we can choose discourse. We can choose complicity, or we can choose opposition. We can choose the status quo, or we can choose change. We can choose to unmask this harm, and we will indeed be the light unto other nations.

The violence may start at home, but so does the solution. Let us start the conversation in our homes, in our communities, and in our families. And let us be leaders in the 16 days of activism against violence against women. We have the power and the choice. I hope we choose wisely.

  • The 16 Days of Activism for No Violence against Women and Children is taking place from 25 November to 10 December.
  • Bonita Meyersfeld is an Associate Professor of Law at Wits Law School; the recipient of the 2018 Jewish Achiever Europcar Women in Leadership Award, and has been awarded the Knight of the National Order of Merit by the French president for her work on human-rights and gender-based violence. She is the founder of Lawyers Against Abuse and the author of the book “Domestic Violence and International Law”.

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