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Gender based violence and social justice

Monday March 29 2021
Gender pic
By Hilda Tizeba

To everyone that knew Sandra, she was the embodiment of what every modern woman aspired to be. She was smart; at the top of her career in a renowned women’s rights organization, had a vibrant social life, married to her husband for two years, had a beautiful baby girl and an appetite for life.

On the outside, the world was her oyster; Sandra was living a dream. Little did everyone know, her personal reality was quite different and in fact, a rather dark nightmare.

Sandra recalls the layers of expensive foundation that she had to put on in the morning before work, so as to cover the bruises resulting from the thrashing she had received the night before.

She recalls how she found herself slowly losing her confidence and hiding in the office bathroom because she constantly found herself shaking and experiencing anxiety attacks at work.

She vividly remembers how she felt herself feeling worthless, ashamed and losing her identity day by day, yet nobody seemed to notice.

How did it all start? Didn’t you see the signs before? “No, I didn’t see the signs,” she answers. “When we were dating, he was an angel. I saw glimpses of his temper from time to time, but I brushed it off, after all, nobody is perfect. “

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“When we got married, it all began so subtlety. He would tear me down psychologically until I started to doubt who I was and what I was capable of.”

Okay, but why didn’t you just leave sooner? Surely an intelligent woman like you could have easily left? One of the many questions she has been asked.

Sandra smiles and recollects how this question triggered her every single time it was asked.

She has now learnt not to take it personally because most people were clearly asking out of naivety and sheer ignorance, so she would calmly educate them.

She would tell them that leaving an abusive situation is not as easy as it sounds. For one thing, the abused person develops an unhealthy attachment towards their abuser that makes them stay.

Moreover, she finally replies, “I feared what other people would say. I did not want to look as the foolish woman that destroyed her home and her marriage.

So I stayed for the sake of my daughter and my reputation until I finally couldn’t take it any longer.”

John’s tale is no different. John is a seventeen-year-old boy that thrived in high school.

He loves to play football, his favourite team is Yanga and he hoped to become a professional footballer someday.

He comes from an affluent family and has everything seemingly going well for him, until that one night in September 2020.

At a night out with his friends, John had a little too much to drink and found himself deciding to stay over at his friends’ place in Upanga as he couldn’t make it all the way back home to Tegeta.

Once they got there, he recalls still feeling a bit drowsy but suddenly being aggressively pushed over to the living room sofa by his so called friends.

That night, John was sexually abused, and he has never been the same since. But why didn’t you say anything, the famous question was once again asked.

To which John replied, after a moment of heavy silence and with tears in his eyes, “I was scared of what everyone would think of me.”

“Besides, most people would probably laugh at me and nobody would have felt sorry for me anyway. After all, such things usually happen to females and they would just consider me weak” he explained.

Now, he finds himself in a living hell, as he has to face those same people in school every day.


Effects of GBV

Gender based violence is a very complex creature to understand.

Its very definition being “violence directed at a person because of their gender” is quite ambiguous. As a result, many people do not understand it.

It can be physical, sexual, psychological and even financial. It can happen to anybody, regardless of education, financial income, class or social status.

Statistically, according to the World Health Organisation, one in every three women has experienced gender-based violence in her lifetime.

As for men, although not as rampant as female gender based violence, they do experience violence as well and in fact, experience deep psychological trauma due to the social stigma that arises thereof.

The psychological and mental aspects of gender-based violence are the greatest torment of all.

They include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, substance abuse, sexual dysfunction, anxiety, feelings of humiliation, low self-worth, low self-esteem and even the ideation of suicide.

The psychological impacts of gender-based violence have far more insidious effects than the actual physical scars that result.

For even when bodies heal, the mental health toll often endures.

When I listened to these stories, one thing became vividly clear; it was not the legal aspect of justice that hindered them from speaking and deciding to seek help.

Something else was amiss; and that thing that is amiss is the reason why probably so many incidents of physical, sexual and emotional violence occur and will continue to occur in exponential numbers.

Combating gender-based violence with the legal arm of justice is one part of solving the equation, but what is the other missing part of the puzzle?

The missing piece boils down to social justice. Justice is not only the mere embodiment of legal rules that help the society address their grievances through the courts of law; it also embodies a social persona.

The social aspect of justice is just as equally important and in some cases even more important than the legal aspect of legal justice itself.


Social justice for GBV

What is social justice one may ask? Social justice refers to the attribute of fairness as it manifests itself in society.

It encompasses participation and equity regarding rights and privileges. In this context, social justice for victims of gender-based violence would include equity in the right to have their voices heard within the society and the privilege of having their stories believed and treated with compassion.

Unfortunately for many victims of gender-based violence, this is a privilege that is not served on the menu.

How effective is a legal verdict in one’s favour when the entire society views them as an outcast? One might as well be the one serving the sentence.

How are issues of gender-based violence perceived socially? Is the court of public opinion sympathetic or does it turn a doubtful and judgmental eye?

More often than not, the court of public opinion can be a ruthless jury.

The court of public opinion has the power to make even those most deserving of justice feel ashamed and ostracized, especially when it comes to issues of gender-based violence.

As a result, many victims do not come forward while others try to either numb or rationalize their abusive experiences as a coping mechanism so as to avert the social stigma and ostracism that comes with declaring oneself as a victim of gender based violence.

When hearts break they don’t break even. For others, the court of public opinion that carries the pillars of social justice is their playground.

They continue to inflict acts of violence on others because they are acutely aware of how this social creature works and how the dynamics of social justice often work in their favour.

Fortunately, by its very name “social justice” it connotes society, which means that ultimately, the society has the power to change the narrative.

The way in which the society mentally perceives issues of gender-based violence is the lubricant that will enable justice for gender-based violence to properly thrive.

When victims of gender-based violence can feel a greater sense of sympathy and empathy from the society around them, the more successful that efforts aimed at combating gender-based violence will be.