Blind spots by design: stepping up to fight gender-based structural violence

The world over, we are told that education is the key to success; that its attainment is the answer to our many societal ills, and I concur. What’s often unaccounted for though is everyone’s access to education, let alone the same standard. According to Statistics South Africa’s 2020 4th quarter labour force survey estimates, out of 20,5 million young people in the country, 45,4% of young women aged 15-34 years were not in employment, education or training (NEETs). For girls, getting an education means gaining entry to the labour market and an opportunity to participate in the economy; it means empowerment and independence, particularly from being kept by a man and making her vulnerable to possible abuse and victimization. In line with most interventions aimed at adolescent girls and young women, education is framed as a deterrent of unwanted pregnancies and HIV infection. Violence against women (VAW) interventions needs to address structural violence as it intersects with gendered cultural and societal norms that hinder women’s empowerment and is part of the gender-based violence and femicide (GBV+F) puzzle.

At the tail of the Covid-19 lockdown and with the glaring evidence that the internet of things (IOT) is the future, I made a decision to upskill and attend a skills development course delivered by a community based organisation, aimed at alleviating skills deficits and poverty, and improving employability and entrepreneurship in the community. This being during the Covid-19 pandemic, my 5 year-old daughter was not attending school and I asked them if they had a day care service or play area that attending parents could safely leave their kids during the 4 hours of the class, and they had none. What this means is that an unemployed single mother trying to help herself secure a better life by attending one of the amazing and affordable courses offered had no way of attending if she couldn’t pay for a day care, a crèche or a sitter for their child. This speaks to society’s inability to cater to women’s access to education (and opportunities) whereas education is dubbed the key to success. Child caring should be a consideration if the intention to advance gender equality and push back women’s poverty is earnest. This gender blind spot speaks to structural violence, wherein some social structure or social institutions may harm people by preventing them from meeting their basic needs. This should be a basic thought because children form part of many women’s daily lives, be it their own child/ren, younger siblings or other.

As we all know or should know, Black South Africans have inherited the inequality from legalised political systems of exclusion creating a cycle of unemployment and poverty, with women and sexual minorities (LGBTIQA+) disproportionately affected. Inclusive transformation should mean levelling the playing field, and support afforded to women and sexual minorities cannot always be the same as what is afforded to cisgender heterosexual men. Women continuously face disproportionate amounts of violence – at home they are the primary caregivers and do most, if not all unpaid care work; at work they constantly fight imposter syndrome and having to prove that they belong, along with sexual harassment and unequal pay; at school they contend with compromising themselves through transactional sex for higher marks – the “birthing” of such disproportions underlay and inform their access to adequate education and tightly preserved by patriarchy, they are rarely a mere oversight. If you have a learner’s or a driver’s licence, then you know of a blind spot. That even when you use all your three mirrors, you still need to give a quick look over your shoulder to make sure you didn’t miss anything before you move to another lane. This paints a picture of how interventions and initiatives for women will tick all the “visible” boxes for transformation, making use of all the obvious tools and not accounting for the blind spots that could still lead to a collision.

Structural VAW is seldom addressed as critically as it should if we are to be honest with ourselves about how the world has always been structured and maintained by men and for men. And before leaping to a defence, which is not uncommon in issues of gender-based violence (GBV), think of it this way; a boy child and a girl child may have sexual intercourse and fall pregnant. In grown up speak, they are both pregnant; in reality, she alone is pregnant and subsequently gives birth. He will not be behind with school because he will not be taking time off from school to take the baby to the clinic, he will not fall behind with homework because he will not be bathing and feeding the baby, or be up all night with a sickly baby – she cannot separate her reality from her education. The schooling system makes no account for this reality by design.

Adolescent girls and young women’s inability to attain an education means they will continue to struggle to ascend in their lives and continue to be vulnerable to gender-based violence. We can Win The Fight (WTF) against gender-based structural violence if we break down the barriers created by gender stereotypes, eliminate gendered discrimination, and prevent and effectively respond to sexual exploitation. We can WTF against GBV by checking the blind spots and eradicating contributors to women’s vulnerability to the vicious cycle of oppression.

By Oyama Tshona
Oyama Tshona is a Gender and Human Rights Blogger, Thetha Ntombi!.
She is a researcher and trainer with a focus on issues that affect adolescent girls, young women and sexual minorities.