The #MenAreTrash hashtag, started in South Africa in 2016, remained barely noticeable until it suddenly went viral in May 2017. What instigated this change? It was the murder of Karabo Mokoena.
The 22-year-old Mokoena’s burnt remains were discovered in April 2017. Her lover, Sandile Mantsoe, admitted to drenching her corpse in pool acid and petrol, and setting it alight. He claimed that she had committed suicide, and that he had burnt the body in fear of being wrongfully suspected of murder given previous allegations of domestic abuse levelled against him by Mokoena in the past.
The incident stirred angry emotions across South Africa, which were heightened by the fact that another young woman, Nhlanhla Phangela (19), died after being stabbed 27 times by her ex-lover in Soweto only a few weeks prior. What happened to these young women are classic examples of a particular kind of violence, namely gender-based violence (GBV).
Although GBV is not limited to women, and while it is true that men are also subject to rape, murder, and various sort of gender-based abuses, the fact is that the statistical gap between male and female victims of GBV is considerable. The United Nations Population Fund points out that the primary victims of GBV are women and adolescent girls, and that women and girls also experience exasperated consequential suffering in comparison to men.
The number of women dying at the hands of their male partners across South Africa reveal that intimate femicide is the deadliest form of GBV in the country (See infra). My intention here is not to list or categorise all instances of GBV in South Africa, but instead to focus on the fact that perpetrators of GBV against women are mostly men who belong to their victim’s inner circle, as will be demonstrated by various statistics and research.; In most cases, GBV occurs in the settings of community, family, work and/or household, with the inner circle of perpetrators including husbands, lovers, ex-lovers, uncles, and so forth.
In these settings, violence does not necessarily originate from the unknown or outside, but from intimate and familiar. In GBV the enemy thus appears to be (always) within, which is why I use the metaphor of the ‘enemy within’ to assess and describe the safety and security of women in their family and household settings.
The metaphor of the ‘enemy within’ echoes the Buddhist spiritual teaching regarding the duality of humankind as consisting of two fundamental features, namely the higher self and the ego. The ego is generally labelled the enemy within. It is this part of us that is responsible for our reprehensible and violent behaviour, and prevents us from reaching and achieving a full and accomplished life (E. Tolle, the power of now a guide to spiritual enlightenment 2004). The human species thus houses within itself the germs of its own destruction; the enemy is not to be found elsewhere, but within.
I will not dwell at length on the spiritual approach to the enemy within. On a more practical note, the metaphor of the enemy within is useful in the framework of war, intelligence activities, and conspiracy theories, because it describes those situations where a person belonging to a group acts against the very same group or its members for a variety of reasons.
Applying the metaphor of the enemy within to GBV, aims to unveil and assess the nature of the threat confronted by women. My argument thus focusses on the unique features of GBV as it compares to violence in general, but first it is crucial to understand what amounts to GBV. I will now explore the shift from violence committed against women to GBV against women.
From violence against women to gender-based violence again women
During its eleventh session, in 1992, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women defined violence against women, in its general recommendation no. 19, as a form of discrimination that seriously inhibits women’s ability to enjoy rights and freedoms on a basis of equality with men. The Committee stated that violence against women is ‘violence directed against a woman because she is a woman or affects women disproportionately’ (available at http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/recommendations/recomm.htm).
Similarly, the United Nations World Conference on Women held in Beijing three years later, in 1995, provided a clear framework on violence against women, which described it as ‘any act based on gender which results in physical, sexual, and psychological harm to women.’
In July 2017, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, following its general recommendation no. 35, adopted the term ‘gender-based violence against women’ to replace that of ‘violence against women’, as initially defined in its general recommendation no. 19 in 1992.
The new term ‘gender-based violence against women’ emphasises the gendered roots and impact of violence. As already mentioned, it is crucial to keep in mind that GBV does not refer exclusively to women, but that women remain the focus here. Accordingly, GBV against women includes the torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in certain circumstances, including in cases of rape, domestic violence, or harmful practices, of women and girls.
From this definition, it is evident that GBV against women refer to a multiplicity of offences namely:
Physical, sexual, and psychological violence in the family, including: battering, sexual abuse of female children in the family, marital rape, female genital mutilation, and violence related to exploitation.
Physical, sexual, and psychological violence occurring within the general community, including: rape, sexual harassment, and intimidation at work, in educational institutions, and elsewhere; trafficking in women and forced prostitution.
Physical, sexual, and psychological violence condoned by the state, wherever it occurs (UN General Assembly 1993).
The above multiplicity of offences constitutive of GBV against women emphasise the family, general community, working environment, and educational institutions as spaces of potential violence. These spaces are all meant to be lived in with familiar others, such as husbands, lovers, uncles, teachers or colleagues. These intimate others, along with women belonging to a group, and therefore supposed to be in familiar, everyday interaction with one another. Resultantly, when GBV occurs within these groups, when women are raped or assaulted by intimate others, one may be tempted to agree that the enemy is (always) within.
The co-spatiality and familiarity between victims and perpetrators of violence is one of the main demarcation lines dividing GBV from violence – whether social or political – in general. In addition, the (potential) perpetrator can successfully disguise himself – often as ‘sir’, ‘prof’, ‘uncle’, ‘daddy’, ‘angel’, ‘baby’, ‘love’, ‘darling’, ‘sweetheart’, ‘honey’, or ‘soul mate’ – until he strikes from his position of invisibility.
Overall, from a legal, moral and human rights perspectives, GBV clearly infringes on the rights and freedoms of women, as guaranteed by various constitutions and conventions protecting women, according to most legal, moral, and human rights perspectives. These rights and freedoms include, among others: the right to life; the right not to be subject to torture, or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; the right to liberty and security of person; the right to equal protection under the law; the right to equality in the family; the right to the highest standard attainable of physical and mental health; the right to just and favourable conditions of work. (UN General Assembly 1993)
Gender-based violence and the metaphor of the enemy within
Most forms of violence against women occur at the hands of someone the woman knows, and many are made invisible as part of family or private life or culture. For instance, between 40 percent and 70 percent of female murder victims are killed by husbands or boyfriends in South Africa. (UN General Assembly 2006)
In her book, The Enemy Within: Homicide and Control in Eastern Finland in the Final Years of Swedish Rule 1748–1808, Anu Koskivirta refers to Crown Bailiff Wallenius’ use of the metaphor of the enemy within regarding the internal strife between the Karelians and their proclivity for robbing and killing their own people. She concluded that ‘the enemy within’ can be understood as a metaphor for a culture of homicide in which the aggression was directed with unusual frequency at members of the perpetrator’s immediate circle. (Koskivirta 2003)
The applicability of this metaphor to GBV against women and girls in South Africa is supported by statistics. It is important to look at statistics on GBV across time to give a proper account of the scale of the problem.
Firstly, in 1999, a study surveying 1306 women in three South African provinces found that 27% of women in the Eastern Cape, 28% in Mpumalanga, and 19% in Limpopo, had been physically abused by a current or ex-partner. (Abrahams et al. 1999) In the same year research showed that 8.8 out of 100 000 members of the female population over the age of fourteen died at the hands of their partners. (Mathews et al. 2004)
Secondly, another survey completed more than a decade later, in 2011, by the Institute for Security Studies found that more than 50% of women in Gauteng had experienced intimate partner violence. Meanwhile, an additional survey focussing on femicide reported that at least 50% of the average of seven women murdered daily between March 2010 and March 2011 were murdered by intimate partners. (Abrahams et al. 2013)
Thirdly, in 2016, a Statistics South Africa Demographic and Health Survey found that, on average, one-in-five South African women older than 18 had experienced physical violence.
These statistics vary according to income and marital status however, with 40% of separated and divorced women experiencing violence compared to 31.1% of those in intimate relationships.
Lastly, the most recent statistics show that 50% of women in South Africa who die violent deaths, occurring at a rate of one women every 8 hours, are murdered by their intimate partners. (Statistics SA: One in five SA women experience physical violence, young women hard-hit by HIV/Aids available at https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2017-05-15-statistics-sa-one-in-five-sa-women-experience-physical-violence-young-women-hard-hit-by-hivaids/#.Wi5Uzze6LIU).
As we analyse these surveys across time, it is quite noticeable how consistent the proportion of women remain who suffer violence and death at the hands of their intimate partners. In fact, the emerging trends indicate that the situation has worsen compared to what it was twenty years ago. The South African Organisation People Opposing Women Abuse rightly observed that intimate femicide remains the main cause of violent death among women. (Deegan 2009) When it comes about GBV in South Africa, the prevailing impression that the enemy might effectively be within continues to be entrenched.
The phenomenon of GBV in South Africa may appear to some as just another crime and/or infringement of fundamental rights and freedoms. However, a thorough assessment clearly shows that the magnitude and proportion of GBV is one of the leading causes of death among women in the country.
It is time to pay attention to this threat if we intend to eradicate it from our culture and traditions. Although there are a number of available policies, legislations, and international conventions protecting women’s rights and dignity, these are poorly implemented and often ineffective. Therefore, the state along with civil societies, traditional leaders and communities should be at the forefront of the battle against GBV.
Having said that, I would like to conclude this reflection from where I started – by referring once again to the #MenAreTrash hashtag. Surely, based on the above analysis, facts and statistics, the dominant answer might be that men are effectively trash. Indeed, instead of being an isolated and accidental phenomenon, GBV against women has weaved itself into our sphere of culture and normality, with women paying the ultimate and supreme price. Yet despite this overwhelming evidence, I am still overcome by a strange feeling.
It looks like I have missed something. Maybe, before jumping to any conclusion, one should start by questioning the true nature of the human species. Is this species violent in essence? Is violence a phenomenon inherent to the human condition and society? If that is the case, is it worth it to try and fight to change what is part of our essence?
My take is that humankind is good at heart and that his or her nature is not violent, but loving, compassionate, and tolerant. What happened is that a slow, repetitive process of learning violence over the centuries has made human beings violent. As mentioned by Koskivirta (2003), the metaphor of the enemy within can also be used as a psychological trope to refer to the criminal individual’s subjective system of beliefs and meanings, and to his or her underdeveloped personal control mechanism. It is therefore crucial to inquire about our true nature both as individuals and as part of a larger species.
It is imperative to understand that people are violent not because it is in their nature to be violent, but because they were conditioned and trained that way individually and collectively over generations. There is no point blaming our parents, grandparents, and ancestors for what has, and is, happening. Rather, the point is to look within ourselves and our society from a completely different perspective. The violence that is present in schools, families, workplaces, and households is but the result of a long learning-process. It is therefore my contention that what has been learnt can also be unlearned, and to succeed is a matter of both individual and collective awareness.