South Africa is again participating in 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children campaign. It is a time for pledges and speeches but not a time for a real response against abuse. High levels of violence, rape and abuse continue – it is pervasive and it lurks below the surface, behind the fence and behind our walls but also openly and brazenly. This so-called 16 days' truce does not halt the abuse, pain and suffering that so many women and children must endure each day.
Tracy Chapman in Behind the Wall captured this tragedy so eloquently as abuse of this nature is not simply about physical violence but rather the helplessness and desperation that women and children must endure alone. They have no place to turn. There is no shelter from the relentless attack on their humanity. This helplessness is perpetuated in the stigmas and shaming that so many women and children feel when they try to report abuse. This is also the same type of shaming that peddles the idea that men cannot be abused or raped. The system that should protect and shield them fails them instead. A system riddled with indifference and inefficiency. Tracy Chapman's lyrics is a stark reminder:
"Last night I heard the screaming / Loud voices behind the wall / Another sleepless night for me / It won't do no good to call / The police always come late / If they come at all / And when they arrive / They say they can't interfere / With domestic affairs / Between a man and his wife / And as they walk out the door / The tears well up in her eyes"
It is easy to get lost in the statistics and to look at the issue of abuse as simply a symptom of a broken society. It is easy to reduce the tens of thousands, who are abused, into victims or to remove their humanity and agency. Those who are abused are often treated as nameless and faceless numbers. We must do a lot more than making pledges for 16 days between 25 November and 10 December if we are ever going to stop the swelling of tears and abuse in our country.
Abuse is a deeply personal trauma, which is not easily diminished by the law. We will continue to fail those who have been forced to endure this type of abuse as long as we continue treating abuse as an isolated issue or by pretending that it is somehow confined to a particular set of circumstances. This is not just heart breaking as this destruction ripples across our communities. Sadly, the abusers often go on to hold positions of authority and despite us remembering Khwezi go on to become President.
The story of abuse should never be another statistic or be reduced into a police docket waiting to be investigated.
The story of abuse is a human one. We must never forget that and so I want to share the story of a young boy. A young boy, not old enough to vote, waits at the Elsies River Day Hospital, in Cape Town, to be examined by a nurse. Our young boy requires an examination because he has been reduced into a case number. He has become a number because of the violence that he experienced the night before. His breathing is strained and his emotions swirl around in his head. He continues to wait until someone sees him.
That young boy's grandmother sits with him as he waits in the hospital for the nurse to return with her instruments to record the crime. His grandmother sits quietly, awash with her own anger and grief, trying to provide our young boy with comfort. But that young boy cannot be consoled. That young boy is angry – angry that this could happen to him, angry that this was allowed to happen but most of all angry that the system, a system that should treat people with dignity and care, has failed him. The nurse eventually arrives and so the indignity continues.
This story is about the violence that he witnessed over the years and heard through the walls. This is about the violence that stole not only his sleep but also his innocence. This should not be a story of a police case number. This is his story. A story riddled with years of pain, of tears welling up and of despair.
This is also the story of a mother, who lost the love of her life at a young age, and who then ended up trapped in an abusive and destructive relationship that would one day cause her young son's ribs and sternum to be bruised and fractured.
The story of abuse should never be another statistic or be reduced into a police docket waiting to be investigated. And perhaps, if we all did more, this could be a story of redemption and about how we all actually did something to stop abuse.
But let us get back to our young boy. The nurse would proceed to take pictures of the young boy's bruises and to finish her paper work. The examination would end quickly and she would only leave him with a few painkillers. And then she would be gone. After all, she saw this all the time.
The system treats abuse as if it is shameful and that blame is to be assigned on those who are abused, which is the very thing that abusers often use to hold them trapped. Our laws will never be enough as long as the stigma is allowed to flourish. We must confront the stigma that forces abused women, men and children into a state of 'victimhood', which proceeds to blame them for the abuse. As a society we have to start interfering if we are ever going to stop the abuse.
That young boy had a name and face. He was never just a number. He was not another victim of violence and abuse. Too much is at stake and we cannot continue to intellectualise or package abuse in this bizarre way. I am that young boy and this is my story and I most certainly have a name.