The Ugly Truth About Love

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It’s February, the month of love. What are you expecting from your partner? A box of chocolates or a black eye?

For many women around the world this is the truth about their “loving” relationships. And it’s ugly.

In a violent world, South Africa has made femicide and rape part of its culture. On average, 116 people were raped every day, according to 2019/2020 crime statistics. That’s 116 lives that are traumatised, 116 futures dramatically altered and 116 families left to pick up the pieces every single day. Of the cases reported, 43% took place in private residences, be it the survivor’s own home or the home of a relative, friend or neighbour. Most acts of violence against women are also committed by people they know, such as current or former partners or family members.

And then COVID-19 hit.

The pandemic has made an untenable situation even worse for women and girls. In the first five days of lockdown in South Africa, Police Minister Bheki Cele confirmed that over 2 300 calls or complaints about gender-based violence (GBV) were reported; that’s over 460 calls or complaints a day.

“We hear stories all the time about violence in our community but with the virus it’s so much worse, because women and girls have to stay at home with their abusers. Many of them are too scared to report the abuse and when they do, cases are often ignored.” This is according two young sisters* aged 25 and 22 years old living with their parents in Tsakane, Gauteng (*Names have been omitted to protect their identities).

This is the reality in South Africa, where women and girls live in constant fear. Are they safe walking to buy airtime? Can they catch a taxi alone? Will they make it home from school or the post office? How can you feel safe, when one of the most likely places you’ll be raped is in your own home?

The World Health Organisation reports that worldwide, 1 in 3 women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence, making this one of the largest and most widespread human rights violations in the world. In addition, GBV is a contributing factor to HIV infection. According to UNAIDS, adolescent girls and young women are disproportionally affected by HIV, with approximately 785 new infections globally per day among this age group.

“Violence against women and young girls isn’t just restricted to physical or sexual assault, it can also be emotional, psychological and/or financial. When you have your earnings taken away, you aren’t in control of your healthcare, you have no say in your access to education and your self-worth and image are constantly harassed and abused, these are all forms of violence,” says Cristianne Wendler, Behavioural Programmes and GBV Manager at Shout-It-Now.

Shout-It-Now is a South African non-profit company that provides free, mobile community based HIV prevention services, GBV services, and sexual and reproductive health services to communities in Gauteng and the North West. It is funded by PEPFAR (the United States President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“Patriarchy and violent masculinity are so entrenched in our society that men, and many women, accept it as a normal way of life. Women and girls have no say, no power and no choice,” says Wendler.

Where rigid concepts of gender exist, many women and girls are heavily dependent on their partners, families or communities for all their needs and they are given little choice in any decisions about their future. They can’t choose their education or their career, they can’t choose when to use protection or when to have a child, they can’t choose their sexual partner and they can’t choose to say no.

So what can they choose? To survive.

In many communities, this most vulnerable group is learning that they’re subject to violence simply because of their gender. They’re seeing that love is transactional, sex is non-consensual and they’re realising that their right to choose is not respected. But with no way to escape this everyday disempowered, repetitive cycle, a different future is easy to hope for but impossible to achieve.

The gender roles in our institutions, cultures and traditions are so unequal that men are simply seen and accepted as superior to women. It’s well past the time for this narrative to shift. It should be normal for women and girls to access basic needs, participate fully in society and move about freely – and safely. It shouldn’t be anything but a woman’s decision who she chooses as a sexual partner or that she wants to use protection. Support services should be readily available and help given without judgement. Independence, success, safety, rights, freedom, dreams – these are all choices that should be the standard, not the exception. And we all have a role to play in making this our reality.

“I know what violence does to family and friends, and it’s heart-breaking when you see women feeling unsafe in their own homes. In our community, women support each other because there’s no safe place to go to for help. There’s no place to go where you don’t feel judged,” says the 25 year old sister.

A year ago, both sisters voluntarily started taking PrEP, a relatively new HIV prevention medication supplied for free by Shout-It-Now and its partners. They also chose to become involved in Shout-It-Now. These ‘Shout Sisters’ are the real faces of girls and young women and they are taking back control and making choices every day about how they want to live their lives.

“Nothing is closer to my heart than providing a safe haven and a safe community for women and girls,” says the 25 year old sister. “I want to change the next generation but I feel like we have a long way to go. The first thing I can do is change myself and better my situation, so that others can be inspired to change their futures too. I want to tell all young girls and women that they must know their worth and that they can do anything they put their minds to. We want to be the sisters they don’t have, to be there for them and to help them achieve their dreams.”

With young women like these stepping up to make changes, is it highlighting that society isn’t doing enough? As we celebrate this month of love, we need to ask ourselves how we’re showing women and girls that they are valued, that their opinions matter, that they should have choices, that they can change their future and that they are loved.

For more information, contact Shout-It-Now through its WhatsApp number: +27 10 020 6021, visit https://shoutitnow.org/ or speak to a call centre agent on +27 10 020 6021.