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We Need To Dismantle The Language Of Protectionism When We Talk About Violence Towards Women

Take the repeated calls on men to stand up, man up, and protect women and children.

15/06/2017 03:59 SAST | Updated 15/06/2017 03:59 SAST
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What do we talk about when we talk about violence towards women? This is a question worth asking at a time when conversation, dialogue, and speech are promoted as our central strategies for changing how women live and die in South African. For talk, in of itself, is not automatically transformative. Indeed, it is entirely possible to be both concerned by violence and to speak in ways that reproduce and uphold the norms that make violence possible.

Take the repeated calls on men to stand up, man up, and protect women and children. Not only do these exhortations collapse women into children, but they also resurrect a particular vocabulary of patriarchal authority. This is a language whose roots extend deep into the 19th and early 20th centuries when women's delicate constitutions and fragile natures required them to be shielded from the rigours of thought, exercise and work.

Once cast in such defenceless and enfeebling terms, they could only but rely on men's exercise of their paternalistic duties. And where women were without protectors, they were often simply treated as fair game by other men. Protectionism also functioned as a convenient tool for the domination of other men. In colonial contexts like South Africa, white men's duty to protect white women's virtue was frequently used to curtail and control black men's movements and work opportunities.

This is the history we invoke when we draw upon the language of protectionism.

But even if we try and update protectionism for the 21st century, it will still rely on conservative gender ideologies that position women as perpetual victims and men as their guardians. Changing this requires a change in the ways we speak about violence – shifting our language from women's protection to women's freedom, a freedom that includes both freedom from violence, as well as the freedom to live, work and love as one chooses.

And in focusing on women's freedom (rather than their protection), we also open ourselves to the recognition of men's vulnerability.

According to the police's 2015/16 crime statistics, 87.5 percent of murder victims that year were male, while 96.2 percent of perpetrators were also male. The South African Demographic and Health Survey conducted in 2016 by the Department of Heath found the annual rate of intentional injury (including violence, assault and self-inflicted injuries) to be 4,444 per 100,000 adult men and 2,699 per 100,000 adult women. Put another way, 370 in every 100,000 men and 225 in every 100,000 women were intentionally injured every month in 2016.

To think and speak about men's violence towards women in the language of protectionism alone is thus to close ourselves off to other important interventions into the problem.

Men are clearly in need of a great deal of protection from violence – yet current gender ideologies do not admit of this, the role of a defenceless victim being an exclusively female one. Yet there is now an ample body of research in existence pointing a close and complex relationship between men's victimisation and their involvement in violence. The lesson to be drawn from this literature is that men's violence both towards women, as well as each other, cannot be addressed in isolation of their victimisation.

There is still other evidence to suggest that violence towards women should not be bracketed off as distinct from, and unrelated to violence generally. A forthcoming, collaborative research project led by the Medical Research Council (MRC) found 30 percent of a national sample of men arrested for rape to have previous convictions. While 4.4 percent of these previous convictions were for rape, the other convictions were for murder, robbery, housebreaking and theft.

Other research conducted by the MRC in the Eastern Cape found rape of a non-partner to be associated with men's membership of a gang – a finding echoed in a different study undertaken in three districts of the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal. Here too a history of arrest and imprisonment, as well as a predilection for theft, distinguished men who raped from those who did not. To think and speak about men's violence towards women in the language of protectionism alone is thus to close ourselves off to other important interventions into the problem.

In exchange for making women dependent upon men for their safety and freedom, protectionism offers women a degraded form of citizenship, one that is predicated on their child-like status and fragile nature of being. It leaves fundamentally intact the sort of gender relations and norms that contribute to violence and pleads only for a kindlier, gentler patriarchy, rather than a transformed gender order. Is this what we're talking about?