Connecting the global to the local: Reflections on CSW 59 and the work of collective actors to address structural violence in South Africa

Thea Shahrokh and Elizabeth Mills argue that commitments and targets for ending SGBV are not enough if not connected to political processes of change

Sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) remains one of the most pressing concerns of our era. Finding effective strategies to collectively address the ubiquity of SGBV must therefore be central to the work of gender activists, researchers and campaigners. Interactions coverage by Amy Hall shows that these vital actors have continued to make visible the importance of addressing SGBV at the 59th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW 59), however, it is clear that we still have a long way to go.

In failing to adequately engage with civil society, the Political Declaration adopted at the beginning of CSW 59 has come under enormous criticism by AWID, IGLHRC and many other organisations for failing to consult civil society, and the corresponding absence of truly intersectional and transformative commitments in the Declaration. As a result, a broad caucus of civil society organisations has called for a renewed focus on the extent to which the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) framework can and does effectively incorporate gender equality and a commitment to end SGBV.

Citizens come together to demand action on a National Strategic Plan on Gender-Based Violence in South Africa. By: Sonke Gender Justice
Currently, targets under proposed goal 5 ‘Achieve gender equality and empower women and girls’ include: 5.2 eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls in public and private spheres. These targets, and the corresponding indicators currently under discussion in the UN, play an important role in building political commitment for addressing the violent subordination of all women, including those marginalised on the basis of their migration status, sexuality, gender identity, age and ability.

However, in many contexts around the globe, progressive and comprehensive legal and policy frameworks still do not translate into adequate implementation of programmes and support systems to end SGBV and meet legal responsibilities. As we move towards the agreement of these global goals and targets in September 2015, the question therefore remains: can the post-2015 framework catalyse truly transformative action at national and local levels? The Institute of Development Studies’ (IDS) recent research collaboration with Sonke Gender justice and the Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation sheds light on how this question might be answered in the South African context. 

Re-cast the spotlight to what fuels this violence

In order to understand processes of change towards ending gender violence in South Africa, and different national contexts globally, it is critical turn the spotlight away from the symptoms of SGBV to the root causes. Through the stories of activists working to end SGBV, and the experiences of civil society practitioners and researchers working on the issue, we found that legacies of racial and economic inequality in South Africa shape contemporary experiences of violence.

As such, the elimination of all forms of gender discrimination, violence and harmful practices as articulated in Goal 5 of the SDGs cannot be disconnected from the intersections between gender, class and race-based discrimination and inequality that manifest in the political and economic realities, and struggles experienced in people’s everyday lives. However, the nature of what is needed to address the structural factors that drive the issue is largely, and conspicuously, absent from SGBV policy and programming and gender equality agendas globally.

Challenge the institutions that maintain harmful gender norms

Structural dynamics sustain norms that perpetuate marginalisation on the basis of gender and sexuality. The study in South Africa found that political, religious and ‘traditional’ institutions and their leaders play a key role in promoting rigid norms reinforcing the heterosexual ‘man/woman’ binary. Without confronting the power granted to certain normative gender and sexual identities the elimination of violence cannot be a transformative agenda.

Citizens come together to demand action on a National Strategic Plan on Gender-Based Violence in South Africa. By: Sonke Gender Justice
Violence based on gender identity and sexual orientation is still not reflected in the SDGs, despite the adoption of the landmark Human Rights Council resolution 17/19 in 2011, for instance, and recurrent call by sexual and gender rights actors to recognise gender identity and sexual orientation in the SDG targets and indicators. While this discourse remains absent in the post-2015 framework, our recent study shows that change toward a more inclusive response to SGBV should, and is, also being driven by local activists and collective civil society mobilisation.

The research also emphasises the importance of understanding and addressing violent masculinities, and explores how men and boys are working to end sexual and gender-based violence. The harm that violent masculinities cause men was raised as a significant issue. We found that gendered binaries of victim and perpetrator limit an understanding of and intervention within the complex relationship between different forms of violence. Furthermore, we suggest that by engaging men and women, it is possible to foster approaches that can transform harmful gender roles for all, and can create more respectful and egalitarian relationships that value people as equal.

Recognise the transformative role of the collective

The research demonstrates that movement building is a critical strategy for driving social change that builds alliances across movements for gender equality, challenges institutions and demands accountability for gender justice. Collective action can provide valuable resources, knowledge and shared accountability for transforming the very institutions that maintain structural inequality and violence. However in taking this agenda forward, governments, citizens and civil society must recognise that these strategies are most effective when:

  • there is a clear vision and purpose for gender transformative collective action – where this reflects a partnership between state, social actors and citizens, possibilities of accountability and the realisation of citizen rights claims to gender equality are strengthened;
  • collective action in ending SGBV is sustainable at the community level – more understanding is needed on what drives citizen action, enables ownership of the process of change, and the resources needed to support this;
  • there are clear strategies and policies for mediating and linking across actors to strengthen networked ways of working to address SGBV across multiple levels and social and political spaces;
  • government recognises citizens and civil society organisations as effective partners in ending SGBV – there is collaborative working to support policy reform on the issue of SGBV, and importantly in enabling effective implementation;
  • there are political decision-makers and champions driving institutional change – entrenched patriarchy in political and religious institutions needs to be challenged in order for these institutions to more effectively address the root causes of SGBV.
  • government accountability for ending SGBV is realised – civil society in South Africa is currently calling on the government for multi-sectoral engagement and citizen participation to develop and implement a fully-costed and funded National Strategic Plan to end SGBV.

The full IDS, Sonke Gender justice and Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation case study report, Turning the Tide: The Role of Collective Action for Addressing Structural and Gender-based Violence in South Africa is available to read here.

Related reading:

Sexuality and Social Justice: What’s law got to do with it? by Elizabeth Millsjavascript:mctmp(0);

Pay-as-you-go activism by Joanna Wheeler and Thea Shahrokh

Tackling gender-based violence through citizen action in Cape Town’s townships by Joanna Wheeler and Thea Shahrokh