Activists call on community to turn rage against femicide into action

  • uyinene
A year ago, Penny Stein met three siblings at a shelter for abused children whose grandparents had distributed pornographic photos of them. Although she had worked with women and children for decades, this case affected her deeply. It was then that she decided to do something to assist battered women and children.
by TALI FEINBERG | Sep 05, 2019

She is one of many South Africans in the Jewish community and beyond fighting the abuse of women and children in the country. August – tagged Women’s Month – ended with the shattering news that University of Cape Town (UCT) student Uyinene Mrwetyana had been raped and murdered in a local post office before the perpetrator disposed of her body.

“The mood on campus has been one of overwhelming sadness and devastation, but there is definitely a strong sense of solidarity among the students,” says Michal Singer, who works at the university. “The vigils and protests have been peaceful, though infused with righteous anger.”

This senseless act of violence was just one in a string of horrific crimes against women over the past month. Thirty-year-old Megan Cremer also went missing before she was found murdered; 32-year old Lynette Volschenk was killed in her own home before her body was gruesomely dismembered; and world champion boxer, 25-year old Leighandre “Baby Lee” Jegels, was shot and killed by her policeman boyfriend.

They are just three of the many known and unknown female women and children who were raped and killed by South African men in the past 30 days. Many women, including local Jewish women, took to social media to ask #AmINext and rage against feelings of hopelessness and fear. According to, the most recent data shows that a woman is murdered every three hours in South Africa.

“We have to be part of the solution,” says Stein. “There is nothing more gratifying than being enraged and putting it to good use. This isn’t a cause, but a crisis.”

Because rape kits can’t be bought, she decided to ensure that at the very least victims would have access to “rape comfort packs” that give them a moment of dignity. She approached the Angel Network for financial support, and director Glynne Wolman immediately offered R240 000 to fund 2 000 comfort kits.

“We had girls leaving the police station with no underwear, and women not being able to clean themselves after being attacked. This isn’t a new initiative, but it’s still desperately needed. Eighty percent of violence in this country is against women and girl children. Forty percent of women in South Africa will be raped at least once. In the Western Cape, they are going through 1 800 of these rape comfort packs a month, mainly for girls between the ages of 5 and 12,” says Stein.

She says rape and violence towards female children is particularly “out of control”, and it affects children across race, religion, and class. Physical abuse is also present across South African society – even affecting Jewish women.

Stein and the Angel Network are asking that people contribute just R120 which will cover the costs of one pack.

Says the Angel Network’s Wolman, “Even though we may not be able to combat sexual violence directly, at least in that moment, the victim will know that someone took the time to pack these kits.”

Although her organisation is open to all, 95% of its members are Jewish. “As Jews, we have been ‘the other’, and now we need to help those who need us most. We often live in a bubble, and we think if we don’t talk about it, it isn’t happening. But we can’t wait to talk to government, we have to go out and do it ourselves,” says Wolman.

Rolene Miller started her nongovernmental organisation Mosaic in 1993 in response to high levels of violence against women, in particular domestic violence. Twenty five years later, the organisation has reached a million people who have been educated, assisted, or protected.

In her experience, levels of sexual and domestic violence against women haven’t changed, but people are now more aware of it. In a typical day, women from her organisation go to where the people are, whether that be homes, courts, or hospitals, to assisting them with everything they need, from filling out forms to taking legal action. These services are free, even though the organisation has been almost bankrupt three times. Miller’s ultimate goal is to work intensively with men to enact change, getting to the root of the problem.

“I’m not despondent. If we weren’t there, hundreds of thousands of women would have nowhere to turn. We are changing one woman’s life at a time,” says Miller. “It’s not only in South Africa that kids aren’t safe, so leaving doesn’t necessarily help. This is an amazing country to serve. I’m grateful to be of service and do tikkun olam (healing the world). I’m proud as a Jew to be making a difference.”

Alana Baranov, the SA Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD’s) representative on the Hate Crimes Working Group says, “We are fortunate that within the Jewish community we have numerous women’s organisations that are dealing with violence against women. These include Koleinu and the Union of Jewish Women’s Shalom Bayit programmes. Nonetheless, we are not immune from this social ill. However, violence against women outside of the community is endemic. The SAJBD, through the Hate Crimes Working Group, engages with women’s organisations on these issues. We also engage with government and parliament.”

The youth are also playing their part. “Habonim Dror (HDSA) has always tried to be proactive in the fight for women’s rights and safety in the world. Our educational process has always – and will always – include the crisis of gender-based violence in South Africa and the world,” says HDSA’s Erin Gordon.

“For too long, society has shied away from speaking about violence and femicide in South Africa. Educators at Habonim have recognised that it’s too late to begin the conversation when our channichim are older. From a young age, we run peulot (educational activities) on equality and responding to things that make you uncomfortable.

“We take the issue of violence seriously and set strict boundaries from the get-go, making sure to teach about consent on a more complex level.”

Stein says the system is so overburdened, it takes weeks for most of the victims of sexual violence to see a counsellor or meet a lawyer. Her next step is to raise funds to employ more of these professionals to be on hand when needed.

“Our society is broken. This deep dysfunction is like a cancer. It has been bubbling under the surface for a long time, and this week it erupted,” she says. “But we can act, day by day. If we leave it to others, no-one will do anything. Be an active citizen. Don’t lose your compassion or empathy. No matter how dark it gets, continue to be part of the solution. The Jewish community can offer incredible support. It’s all about how we channel that goodness.”


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