“When Choce is not an Option”
Published in ThisDay, 2 April, 2004
When Choice is not an Option
President Thabo Mbeki’s reportedly jocular remark during an election rally about beating his sister was reckless. Why is it that in one of the very rare occasions when we hear the president speaking publicly about an issue that affects many women -- violence -- it is only as a joke? How can an experience that is real and painful for millions of South African women be made into a joke by the head of state? In a society where the rate of domestic abuse and rape is counted among the worst in the world, where the beating of women by their fathers, brothers, husbands and lovers is no laughing matter, how can the president joke about this?
It sends the wrong signal to women and men who are working hard to change sexist language, perceptions and attitudes that contribute to the normalisation of violence against women. The president?s statement not only legitimises the treatment of women as objects, but perpetuates the stereotype of men -- African men -- as violent, sexual, sexist beings who want to control and dominate women, and who, if women are unwilling to acquiesce, will physically punish them. The president’s statement raises many questions not only about the messages communicated at leadership level about gender issues, but also whether we can relax now that we have a non-sexist constitution and gender sensitive policies.
The remark resonates far beyond the election campaign. The images of sex and violence that it reflects touch women in one of the most vulnerable aspects of their lives at present: sexual autonomy. When it comes to making choices in sexual relationships, the majority of women have no voice, no power. The recent finding by the Medical Research Council that there are more female than male fatalities related to Aids, reminds us of how far-reaching this state of affairs is. Many HIV-Aids intervention programmes are based simply on the prevention element of condoms while the caregiving aspects focus only on counselling and treatment. The issue of male social power and gender dynamics, so crudely captured by Mbeki’s fundamentally sexist remark, is rarely considered.
I spent Human Rights Day last week in KTC, a township near Cape Town, speaking with women living with HIV-Aids. The theme of the conversations was that of helplessness, not only in relation to condom use, but also regarding making decisions about whether to stay in a relationship where the risk of HIV infection is high. “When he started sleeping around early in our relationship I tried to leave him,” said one very young woman
referring to her partner. “But he would beat me blue, accusing me of having an affair.” One day she returned from the clinic and told him about the HIV positive results of her blood test. He beat her up, saying the results confirmed his suspicions about her seeing another man. He left.
“Now its too late,” she said after a long silence, placing her hand protectively on her pregnant stomach. She turned away from me to look out through the door of the tiny tin home where she lives with her mother.
Clearly, since HIV-Aids develops in a context of social inequality, it is a human rights issue. Women who are at risk of HIV infection face multiple victimisation – simply by
being women. Their right to make choices that could reduce the chances of being infected is taken away by a culture that privileges men, and forces women into the silence of submission. The “weaker” sex is further weakened by their poor socio-economic
circumstances which predisposes them to dependency and renders them unable to leave emotionally and physically abusive relationships. Not only women’s biological makeup makes them vulnerable to HIV infection, but also their powerlessness to question partners or husbands about their extramarital affairs, or to refuse sex with unfaithful partners or negotiate introducing condoms. They are disadvantaged by the socio-cultural context which equates men’s multiple sexual encounters with masculinity.
HIV prevention strategies will only succeed if these factors are taken into account. Programmes ought to incorporate an empowerment and skills training plan for women from low socio-economic areas. Where the risk of HIV infection is high not only economic empowerment for women is needed, but also partnerships with men and the incorporation of a human rights agenda for women in intervention programmes. In this time of HIV-Aids crisis, policy documents alone cannot forge our democracy. We may have some of the best laws and policies that affect gender power relations, but the evil of sexism is not only about equal access to opportunities for men and women. It is also about the position of women in a cultural context. For certain groups of women gender relations affect their ability to make choices that will protect them from HIV infection. One of the surest ways of changing risky forms of behaviour such as multiple partners and unprotected sex is a rigorous “informational cascade” where leaders use election campaigns to instill values like compassion, dignity and responsible sex.
Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, author of A Human Being Died That Night: A Story of
Forgiveness, is associate professor of psychologyat UCT