This past week, my social media feed has been ablaze with friends and family voicing their outrage about the escalation of gender-based violence back home in South Africa. The magnitude of fear that South African women experience was illuminated through the tragic rape and murder of Uyinene Mrwetyana, a University of Cape Town student who was attacked at a post office when she went to pick up a parcel. Soon after, the South African Police Services released a crime report for the past year stating that there were 2,771 women murdered and a shocking 36,597 more sexual offenses reported within the same time frame. These harrowing facts and stories sparked a national outcry. Despite this, there has been a deafening silence on the part of the international community and I have been disillusioned by the lack of global outrage.
Femicide is not unique to South Africa, but our silence is treating it as an isolated problem. When injustices against women were brought to light through the #MeToo movement, influential media outlets acknowledged and spread awareness of the problem. South Africa warrants the same respect and consideration. Therefore, as members of an influential community, it is imperative that we create awareness about the issue — South Africa’s women deserve to be heard. The first step in assisting them is to show them that we are listening.
Uyinene’s death is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to gender-based violence in the country. The everyday life of a woman in South Africa involves constant alertness and unease. The statistics speak for themselves: between 25% and 40% of South African women experience some form of physical harm at the hands of a man. Many South Africans protested on Sept. 5 to show solidarity with victims of gender-based assault, as well as to call for the government to take action.
The women of South Africa have spoken up. Now it is in the hands of the global community to step in and encourage the leaders of South Africa to do more to make sure that these women feel safe. This is not a battle that South Africa can fight alone. So talk about the issue; post on social media; urge others to look into what is happening halfway across the globe. Awareness is the catalyst of change.
If you are still uncertain about whether creating awareness leads to real change, I invite you to think about social media’s historical power in calling attention to global crises. This past summer, the fire in the Amazon was spreading both in reality and on all prominent social media platforms. During this time, I could not open Instagram or Facebook without seeing the devastation that was occurring in Brazil and its neighboring nations. Celebrities and the media called for people to donate and ensured everyone knew the extent of what was happening. Shortly after the outburst on social media and international news platforms, Brazil’s president was forced to take action. It is important to bear in mind that the uproar was not only emanating from Brazil — we all had a role to play in making sure that something was done. The same fervor should apply to South Africa.
By remaining silent, we become part of the problem: we signal to the women of South Africa that they do not matter. I fear that their cries for help will simmer down due to a lack of belief that change will come just as they did in 2018. Similar protests took place in 2018 during Women’s History Month and it is evident that not much has changed. Let us not allow there to be a period of silence again. One of my friends back home told me that “at this point, we just want to be heard,” as she voiced her frustration with the lack of action taken. Activism and awareness have the power to both create a serious dialogue about societal wrongs and right those wrongs, as evidenced by both national and international support for the #MeToo movement.
I understand that it is easy to overlook a nation that rarely makes international news, but the incessant violence against human beings in South Africa warrants global attention and transcends the label of “localized problem.” I urge you not to let other major headlines drown out South Africa’s cries for help. If we do not say anything, nothing will change.
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A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Sept. 16, 2019 print edition. Email Neil Dittrich at [email protected]