State of Emergency - The War on Women's Bodies

By Gillian Schutte · 25 Feb 2013

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Picture: Sipho Singiswa
Picture: Sipho Singiswa

Women’s bodies have been the locale of war since the inception of patriarchy - a misogynistic trend that saw the female body become the site of restraint, control and oppression. Thus the female body has largely become a meme of violence, suffering and exploitation rather than joy, pleasure and autonomy.

Much of this violence is centred on the vagina from which all human life is conceived.

Rape is an excruciatingly cruel male practice fuelled by a horrible concoction of masculine entitlement, entrenched patriarchy, misogyny and fear.  In some cases it is driven by the lack of self-esteem of the unemployed frustrated and furious disenfranchised emasculated male. In other cases rape is driven by the sheer arrogance of the wealthy entitled privileged male who reduces his partner to a trophy or an object to be owned.  Many times it is ordinary men who are known to the victim such as uncles, neighbours or the man in the grocery store.

It does not matter who the rapist is, the damage to women is the same.

In South Africa the war on women is nothing less than a national calamity as women and children have become victims of a current crisis of masculinity. Whether it is centered on white paranoia, privileged entitlement or economic desperation, the rage is turned onto women. 

In fact South Africa has been listed as the fourth most dangerous country to live as a woman.

Just this February we were subject to a wave of headlines centred on violence against women.  Not that this month is any different to any other month in South Africa.  It just so happened that the particularly brutal disembowelment and genital mutilation of 17-year-old girl named Anene Booysen, coincided with the biggest global campaign the world has ever witnessed, “One Billion Rising to End Violence Against Women and Girls”.

It also coincided with the global outrage against the gruesome gang rape and torture of Jyoti Singh Pandey, the young Indian woman who died from her injuries early this year.

South Africa could no longer keep silent about equally repugnant rapes happening on its own doorstep. That would just have been morally reprehensible.

In this same month a nameless married woman was beheaded by her husband, another young woman's torso was found legless and armless in her neighbour's drain; two young girl’s bodies were found sexually mutilated and strangled in the veld.  These incidents remained minor headlines and were soon forgotten in the wake of the alleged murder of Reeva Steenkamp by Paralympic gold medallist, Oscar Pistorius.

The fact that these victims and perpetrators are from different social strata and race categories challenges our society to re-examine their prejudices about who exactly it is that is capable of murder, rape and violence.  The truth is that misogyny and violence against the feminine knows no class or race or cultural barriers.  It exists wherever men and women exist.

Violence against women is an epidemic that stretches across the globe. It is entrenched and massive. According to UN Statistics one in three women will be beaten or raped in her lifetime. We can put the blame squarely at the feet of patriarchy - a dominant ideology and occupying system with its many gruesome manifestations around the world.

Patriarchy plays out in various degrees of cruelty and oppression in different countries.  Each continent has its own homespun modes of violence imposed upon women to control and dictate to them how far they develop, how sexual they are allowed to be, how self-realised and authentic or empowered they are given the permission to become.

In the West it is seen in world domination patriarchal practices, in church structures where institutionalised misogyny is rife -- as it is in the corporate and governmental structures. It is also seen in incidents of rape and domestic violence.

And let us not forget that Europe remains the biggest consumers of the flesh trade in the trafficking of women and children through an entrenched sex slave industry, which reveals a lot about what a repressed patriarchy is capable of becoming.  The realities of this underground world of subjugation and horror has not even begun to be revealed because the truth is there are very few survivors of this well-oiled and well-hidden machinery of systematic rape.

In Africa and other patriarchal societies, women are under siege as they fight to resist the energy of male hostility and control as well as devastation in war zones, while trying to survive economic hardships that are hard to imagine.

As indicated by American playwright and gender activist, Eve Ensler, who has worked in many rape zones of the world – whether in Zimbabwe, where widespread rapes occurred during election violence or Somalia, Egypt, Ethiopia, Gambia and Masailand where the oppression of women, early marriage and female genital mutilation is prevalent or Guinea where women suffered horrendous rapes in their political turmoil or Somalia, Sudan, Sierra Leone and Congo, where many thousands of women have been raped and methodically desecrated, women in Africa are having a war waged upon them.  Not without the help of the West either.

Rape statistics are higher in countries subjected to on-going wars, as in the Congo where rape is used as a means to secure minerals for corporations throughout the West. Here this practice of destroying women's bodies is becoming a weapon of multi-nationalism that is being used as a way of securing minerals. By raping women and destroying communities and villages though femicide, militias get access to mines.

It is clear that sexual violence is becoming an instrument for corporations and capitalist interests in a self-serving partnership between Western and African patriarchy – generating an apocalyptic landscape in which the war on women manifests in alarming levels of rape brutality in what plays out as a perturbing and terrifying echo of colonialism.

Back in South Africa, in a country of 50 million people, three women are killed by their intimate partners every day.  We are told that a woman is raped every seventeen seconds, yet only one out of nine women report it. It is also reported that only 14% of perpetrators are convicted.

Some have said that these statistics are comparable to rape statistics in a war zone.  Surely this situation is untenable?

Surely it is time that we, as a society, get it together to tackle this problem head-on and determinedly.  It is men who have declared war on women and it is women who spend an inordinate amount of their energy protecting themselves from this onslaught of male violence.

We need to rise up at every occasion and form a unified voice around ending rape and violence on all women – whether a black lesbian killed in a township by homophobic gangsters or a top white model shot to death by her celebrity boyfriend – the reaction needs to be the same.

We need to form mass protest women’s movements to scream out that enough is enough.

We need to pick up pots and pans, drums, our primal screams, our banners, our outrage and gather outside magistrate’s courts and police stations to show our rage. We need to join those voices that are working to make sure government hears our demands loud and clear and we must find ways to make sure they can no longer ignore the state of emergency that needs to be declared for the women of South Africa.

We need to fight this war within the wider issue of social causes and demand a world in which communities are given services that create safer environments for women.

We also need to work together to dismantle the hold that patriarchy has over our language, our popular culture, our media, judicial systems and institutions of learning. This is all part of the battle.

Misogyny is institutionalised. It is entrenched in our daily lives and it is invisible to those who have been handed this so-called ‘god given’ right to claim procurement and superiority over women.

And for those men, who are already bleating that not all men are the same, consider this: only one man in about 250 000 will speak out against rape.

Until this changes, the silence of the majority of men about the reality of this war on women implicates the male collective.

Now is the time in which both men and women must rise up and end this war on women's bodies, women’s psyches, women’s intellect, women’s emotions and women’s vaginas.

Schutte is an award winning independent filmmaker, writer and social justice activist. She is a founding member of Media for Justice and co-producer at Handheld Films.

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tayyabah makda
25 Feb

Oscar Pistorius

Let's send sms' around to gather how many people believe Reeva was not a victim of violent assault just before she was shot. An opinion poll with few facts will give us a view to stand firmer on public opinion based on facts, not on twisted evidence.

Respond to this comment

27 Feb


How can you stand firmer on public opinion based on facts when you are asking people to sms what the 'believe'? - just as bad as twisted evidence.

25 Feb

The War on Women's Bodies

I agree with your analysis and identify with your anger and urgency, Gillian, so thank you for writing this. I would add, though, that patriarchy also oppresses and victimises men who are different (including those men who identify as heterosexual and who do not conform to hegemonic, dominant ideas of how to be a man and men who are gay or gender non-conforming), lesbian women and those lesbian women who are non-gender conforming and trans women. I also feel that there is significant silence about men who are raped, especially men who are subjected to systematic rapes in situations of war or political violence - eg in the DRC, Chile, Greece, Croatia, Iran, Kuwait, the former Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia - and in prisons (Lara Stemple has documented these in an excellent publication). I feel these rapes also meet the criteria of patriarchal dominance, power and humiliation. So I guess my concluding thought is that patriarchy is bad for all of us, not just women (though I absolutely concede that women are much more systematically vulnerable and constitute the bulk of the victims of crimes, which involve sex and power) and needs to be dismantled by all of us.

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27 Feb

"One in 250000 Men"

I'm curious. how are you calculating 'only one in 250,000 men speak out against rape'. How are you defining 'speaking out'. and what is the equivalent figure for women?

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