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February’s paradox: The focus on love in a world of intimate partner violence

February is known as the month of love.

Our social media feeds are swallowed up by a wave of demonstrations of love on Valentine’s Day. But hidden from our content feeds are the many concealed manifestations of gender-based violence, occurring even on the day of love, often perpetrated by intimate partners. While certain incidents grab news headlines, the majority go unnoticed.

The body of 31-year-old Sandiswe Bhuga was found in Kanana Informal Settlement in Gugulethu in the Western Cape on the morning of Valentine’s Day three years ago. You might not have heard her name, but you’re probably familiar with Reeva Steenkamp, the 29-year-old model who was shot by her boyfriend Oscar Pistorius, also on Valentine’s Day.

Gender-based violence (GBV) is a catch-all term for various forms of harm perpetrated against someone because of their perceived gender or violence that disproportionately affects people of a particular gender – women.

Intimate partner violence, a type of GBV, refers to any action occurring within an intimate relationship that results in psychological, physical, or sexual harm to individuals involved in the relationship.

One in four women say they’ve been in an abusive relationship. And, this type of violence is a risk factor for the spread of HIV. The rate of women killed by intimate partners in South Africa is five times higher than the global average. In lower-income communities, women commonly report higher incidents of intimate partner violence. Here, lack of economic opportunities and entrenched inequalities in the distribution of power, resources, and responsibilities between men and women create a risk environment that supports high levels of HIV infection and intimate partner violence.

The common signs of abuse appear on a continuum. These acts range from the seemingly innocuous to the outright dangerous. For instance, your partner may monitor where you are, who you are with and insist that you reply to their texts, emails and calls right away. On the more extreme end, they may physically threaten or hurt you. Sometimes your friends, colleagues or neighbours will notice that something is wrong and say something to you. Those of us who see the signs and know it’s not easy for a woman to simply walk away because she may not have a safe place to go, remember that silence is the enemy.

Nationally, there are resources and support systems available for women, such as a national emergency helpline where you can speak to a social worker. This initiative is part of the Gender-Based Violence Command Centre operated by the Department of Social Development. But in lower-income communities, particularly in rural and remote areas, prevention programmes and support systems for women are most effective when they respond to local needs and are led by the communities themselves.

In these neighbourhoods, civil society has filled the vacuum – but I’m not talking about well-known NGOs that have a national footprint. I’m talking about the ones you’ve probably never heard of. These community-based organisations fly below the media radar, largely invisible to big donors. To support their efforts, the DG Murray Trust, Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Project, and the Elizabeth Taylor Aids Foundation have come together to fund community-based initiatives addressing GBV.

One of the beneficiaries, Ihlumelo Foundation, a youth-led organisation operating in several wards in the Buffalo City Metropolitan Municipality in the Eastern Cape, uses theatre to bring conversations about GBV to young audiences. It was founded by a young man who realised that boys and men in his community were largely excluded from conversations about gender norms and gender-based violence. So, his organisation created a space for them to discuss these topics during gatherings called Indibano Yamadoda (which means a gathering of men in IsiXhosa).

In Limpopo, the Rinae Sengani Foundation in Thohoyandou assists survivors of GBV with legal advice and counselling. And, to help women access economic opportunities, the organisation offers skills training and workshops to those struggling to find jobs.

Just imagine what these organisations and many others would achieve if more philanthropic foundations and donors supported them. Not only would these community-based organisations be able to help more women access services and opportunities, but they would also be able to extend their efforts to tackle the cultural roots of exclusion and violence. The work of community-based organisations is driven by compassion, care, a profound love for humanity and a passion for gender equality and social justice.

It’s the type of love and passion seldom celebrated on Valentine’s Day.

Zandile Mqwathi is the project manager for DGMT’s gender-based violence (GBV) initiatives.


This opinion article was first published by City Press on 13 February 2024. Read it here.

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