People Opposed to Women Abuse (POWA)
It's the 25 November, International Day of No Violence against Women and I am 35,000 feet
above ground en route to Frankfurt from Oslo, on my way home to Johannesburg. It's a
strangely apt place to be writing the first blog entry for the 16 Days of Activism. Here,
somewhere over Europe, I am reminded that violence against women is a global phenomenon.
Its been a month of traveling and I am extremely pleased and relieved to be heading home and
into one of the most grueling yet exciting times of the year - the 16 days of activism. I started
November in Osire refugee camp in Otjiwarongo in Namibia. I spent a week there working on a
sexual and gender based violence program with the UNHCR, refugees, activists from other non-
governmental organizations and government officials. Despite some good work being done
there, refugee women continue to experience high levels of sexual exploitation and violence,
stigma and gender inequality.
From Namibia, I traveled with two POWA colleagues to Brazzaville in the Republic of Congo to
attend the African Commission on Human and People's Rights. I spent a fairly frustrating week
with other participants at the NGO forum. While there I was reminded of the dangers of
becoming too reactionary - of what happens when the lines between state and civil society blur
and the agendas merge. The NGO Forum reminded me of the need for autonomous and
independent spaces for civil society to define our own agenda.
I was hardly home and adjusting to the cool(er) South African summer when I had to leave for
even colder Norway where I have spent the last week. One of POWA's projects - the women's
writing competition - is supported by a student and academic organization called SAIH. SAIH
and FOKUS, invited POWA to participate in a week-long program on violence against women.
Two other South African organizations were also invited to Norway - Curriculum Development
Project for Arts and Culture Education and Training and Masimanyane Women's Crisis Centre.
Norway is about to follow in the steps of Sweden and will in 2008 criminalise the buyer of sex.
In most of the presentations made by Norwegian women's rights activists, trafficking was
mentioned as being the most significant violence against women that they were dealing with.
Adult sex work was seen as being fundamentally linked to trafficking.
I had many heated discussions with these activists on why and how they thought criminalizing
the buyer would reduce the demand for sex work and would in turn reduce the number of
trafficked women into Norway. These women saw sex work as being a form of violence against
It was interesting to hear how women from across a moral, religious and political spectrum
argue for the same goal.
My own views on this topic have been informed by my encounters with progressive women's
and sex worker rights' organizations such as SWEAT (Sex Workers Education and Advocacy
Taskforce). We have long called for the decriminalization of adult sex work. We know that in
South Africa sex workers are extremely vulnerable to violence - including state sponsored
violence by police - and have almost no access to justice and redress as a result of their
involvement in a criminalized occupation. We have heard from sex workers about how they are
frequently exploited, blackmailed and violated by police and others in positions of power.
It is possible that if the buyer is criminalized that sex workers will be forced into even more
dangerous locations to lesson the possible arrest of the buyers.
The positions taken by the women in Norway were interesting to listen to and argue against.
The media had also run a series of articles and exposé's on intimate femicide in the week prior
to our arrival in Norway. Seventy-two women have been killed by their male partners in
Norway since 2000. The profile of the victims and the perpetrators confirmed the facts that
intimate femicide was a phenomenon that not only takes place in Norway but also involves
Norwegians. Many Norwegians - like others across the world - believe that violence against
women happens only in immigrant communities.
In South Africa, intimate femicide claims a women victim every 6 hours, in the United Kingdom
two women are killed per week by their intimate male partners.
The release of these statistics ultimately reminded us all that while Norway is often regarded as
a leader in entrenching gender equality it is not violence free.
The kick off event: 24 November 2007
I was deeply skeptical about the kick off event planned for the 24 November in Oslo. I suppose I
have become so determined in maintaining our militant and radical approach to the 16 Days of
Activism. In South Africa, the 16 Days of Activism has become a hotly contested space with an
interesting mix of government and civil society participation. Over the next two weeks I hope to
share in this blog the events we plan, the debates we raise but also the relationship between civil
society and the state during this period.
Perhaps it was long line of candles that lit the path to the church where the event took place in
Oslo, or the beautiful yet simple program that moved me to realize the value of different forms
of activism. There were speakers from government - the Minister of Justice, faith based
organizations and women's rights organizations.
This is an extract of what I said at the gathering:
LAUNCH OF 16 DAYS OF ACTIVISM - OSLO, NORWAY
The Honourable Minister of Justice, Program Director, Fellow Speakers, members of FOKUS,
SAIH and other civil society organizations. Comrades, Activists and Friends on behalf of your
South African guests I greet you in the name of the universal struggle for women's rights and
It is indeed a great honor and pleasure to share this day with you. Here as in all other parts of
the world, there is a growing awareness and sense of urgency about the violence that is being
perpetrated against women.
We are not free while one of us is not free. No nation, no people can remain unaffected while
another is still buckled under the chains of gender oppression.
· At least 60 million girls who would otherwise be expected to be alive are "missing"
from various populations as a result of sex-selective abortions or inadequate care as they are
seen less important than boys
· At least one in every three women, or up to one billion women, have been beaten,
coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in their lifetimes. Usually, the abuser is a member of her
own family or someone known to her
· Up to 70% of female murder victims are killed by their male partners - in South Africa
this translates into 1 in every 6 hours and in Norway 72 women victims since 2000 whereas in
the United Kingdom 2 women killed per week.
· One in five women will be a victim of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime
· In South Africa the conviction rate for rape remains low at an average of 7%
· Rape remains underreported - in South Africa 11% of women report rapes to police,
in the USA - 16% and in the United Kingdom 13 % all raped women report the assault to the
It is the face of these statistics we are called to action during these 16 Days. To utilize these
days as a way to increase our understanding of violence against women as a violation of human
rights. It is imperative to draw into the debate our leaders in State, Private Sector, Faith Based
Organizations, our Communities to jointly identify challenges and solutions to this violence that
is crippling our nations. In order to win this war against unprecedented levels of assault on the
human dignity and safety of women demands the concern and engagement of all people and
These statistics and our experience tell us that no country is immune. No woman is immune.
Some women and girl-children are however more vulnerable to the effects and extent of the
violence than others. Women on the margins of society due to their legal, political, economic
and social status or situations, demand special acknowledgment and appropriate responses.
These women who due to their sexual orientation, gender identity, HIV status or because their
countries are at war, their occupations criminalized, their displacement from their countries of
origin are vulnerable to violence (including state-sponsored violence) and secondary
victimization, the perpetrators often granted impunity. We must ensure that our strategy and
programs speak to the needs and rights of these women.
It is also apparent that violence against women is located within contexts of legal and social
gender inequality. One part of the solution is to create an enabling legal and policy framework
that entrenches the rights of women - in all our diversity. However, what countries like South
Africa, Norway and others have taught us is that unless we are able to internalize these legal
values and principles, the laws on their own do not have a positive impact on women's lives. We
need to work at a deeper level to weave these values and principles into our everyday lives,
within our homes, workplaces, places of worship, courts. And while we work for the freedom
of women, we must not ignore the deepening poverty and inequality divide between and within
the global north and south. Transformation has to happen at both individual and systemic /
institutional levels if we are to create a world where we are all free, and able to achieve our
The 16 Days of Activism is a global campaign, and all across the world gatherings like these take
place calling us to renew our commitment in symbolic and visible ways to a world free from
violence, inequality and poverty. To guide as we work, I wish us the following qualities - love, a
sense of urgency for change and the courage to express our outrage at injustice.