WISP: An Interdisciplinary Panel Tackling Violence Against Women

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For five weeks over June and July, we ran an intensive short course exploring the relationship between COVID-19 and interdisciplinarity. Participants were invited to write a blog post relating to the work they’d done during Explore ID, and, in what follows we present one such blog.

The piece is a fictional account of an organisation called WISP (also fictitious) meeting to discuss the implications of COVID-19 on domestic violence against women in South Africa. As you will see, the authors saw it important to include voices from a wide range of disciplines including technology, psychology, gender studies, business and entrepreneurship, law, spirituality, and culture studies.

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WISP, A new South African organization has been formed to examine the surge of violence against women during the pandemic. Already a serious problem, in South Africa, violence against women has escalated alarmingly, over the last few months during the novel coronavirus outbreak, and is being called by the media, The Second Pandemic. WISP, an acronym for Women’s Issues Second Pandemic, has invited experts in different fields to meet for a series of in-depth discussions as a prelude to presenting recommendations to Parliament. Below, is a transcript of the opening of the first meeting.

First Meeting of WISP
Mrs Grace Mobenwi (Chairman)
Thanks to all of you for congregating via ZOOM. We are present today, seven of fourteen invitees to our panel discussions. We aim to meet in a series of intimate talks about The Second Pandemic at this time of COVID-19. We represent arenas of knowledge that could help solve the exponential and frightening hike in violence against women over the last months in our country. Calls for help from women who have been impacted by violence have tripled and all current resources are overstretched. The finance for WISP, which aims to solve a women’s crisis, at a time of another crisis – the medical crisis of COVID-19 – has been generously provided by the Applebaum Foundation. WISP will submit a report to a parliamentary subcommittee, overhauling attitudes, approaches, services and laws dealing with the issue. We have deliberately gathered individuals with different knowledge arenas so as to avoid the Einstellung Effect, which characteristically leads to tunnel vision. We are using an interdisciplinary approach, finding answers and solutions wherever we can, so as to create a palimpsest – a richly layered and complex picture from which useful and inspired new solutions may hopefully emerge. I am limiting our speakers today to two minutes, for this initial round, to briefly introduce their knowledge specialties. Miss Maureen NXhosa, a big welcome and please will you start.

Miss Maureen N’Xhosa
Hello, I am thrilled to be part of WISP. It is an important and overdue initiative. Gender Studies, my speciality at the University of Cape Town, provides wider frameworks for understanding women’s realities. We need a broader perspective of the forces, pressures, ideologies and customs shaping and curtailing women’s everyday realities. Women are under excessive strain during the COVID-19 pandemic as they juggle responsibilities, often shouldering the family burden of domestic chores, caring for the young, elderly and sick in their homes. Gender studies makes a distinction between what happens inside the home, the Private Realm and what happens outside in the Public Realm. South Africa retains a strongly patriarchal culture and men continue to believe that they hold rights over the bodies and lives of women in the Private Realm. The police when called in to help, often prefer to turn a blind eye, believing that what happens in the home is a private affair. We see that women in their homes are not afforded the same degree of respect and protection that ordinary citizens receive in the Public Realm. I will unpack more about this, as well as the Nature/Culture divide, which places women in relation to nature, that which is by rights to be dominated and tamed, and men in relation to culture, classically seen as the superior forces conquering nature, with sometimes seriously detrimental effects on women’s lives. Enough for now as my time is up. Let’s hear from Mabel.

Mrs Mabel Simmons
Thank you, Maureen. I am glad this conversation is being had. For me, a technology expert, it’s interesting to see how during this pandemic technology has become, as Emma Grey-Ellis describes it, a double-edged lifeline for those in abusive relationships. On one edge the ways that resources and services can now be offered in the form of apps, virtual chats, hotlines and even Facebook campaigns allows victims to reach for help. The other edge is that currently technology is our principal connection to the outside world and as such it’s another way that perpetrators leverage control over their partners. We have no way to understand the psychological strains of being isolated from normal life, and being consistently and inescapably close to your abuser, and being monitored 24/7. It’s terrifying, we won’t see the full impact this issue has caused for years, if ever. Over to Josephine, who is a personal friend and I can tell you has been doing incredible work to help abused women.

Ms. Josephine Goodheart
Hi! As an entrepreneur, I started FAAW in 2015, which addresses abuse against women, working locally to provide the right help – a place that I would want to turn to. Today’s global pandemic has caused isolation, dreaded by women who are victims of domestic abuse. FAAW has never been more needed. A concurrent economic crisis means less funding and fewer partnerships. We are less able to cover our costs. I have let 2 people go, and volunteers, critical to our operations, have no time to volunteer. They have to see to their economic survival. The pandemic has masked issues that will remain after the crisis. Local entrepreneurial organisations and grassroots make up an essential part of the solution, and now risk shutting down. What is the aftermath of this? What happens to women’s safety, help and support, even hope, a rescuing network and sense of togetherness? How do we support entrepreneurship and smaller organisations to avoid a post-pandemic society where these issues are dealt with through global and large organisations rather than small local ones who know the problem? Jeremy, let’s hear from you now.

Jeremy Keegan
I am here as a lawyer and I can tell you that there is a real problem with the courts taking cases of domestic abuse seriously. Characteristically the testimony of women is taken less seriously and hard evidence is sometimes shamefully dismissed, allowing perpetrators to walk free. I have recently been involved with the case of Miss Machel who has suffered the loss of her left eye as a result of violence.. Even the transcripts on her WhatsApp feed from her boyfriend, saying how sorry he was, and literally confessing to the violent act, were dismissed by the court as unreliable. So I can say to you emphatically that not only are the laws not severe enough but even the laws that we do have to help curb this sort of violence are not rolled out and applied nearly stringent enough. Women are routinely let down and denied access to impartial justice. We really do need to ask ourselves what sort of laws would act as a suitable deterrent and then how can we set up court watchdogs to ensure that the evidence of women is handled fairly and correctly, and if not, that the cases are able to be taken on to the higher courts, to the Supreme Court if necessary. Let’s hear now from Annie Lama

Anni Lama
I am here as the Dalai Lama’s representative. As you may all be aware, His Holiness is a great friend of your Archbishop Desmond Tutu who thought, in the true spirit of inter-denominational faith, that a Tibetan Buddhist perspective would have an interesting light to throw on this problem. The Dalai Lama wishes me to convey his strongly held belief that we need to encourage a culture of non-violence and warm-heartedness and that this should be tackled from the earliest years in a child’s education – actually from Kindergarten onwards. An education in warm and compassionate human relationships and in ethically responsible and peaceful behavior would train children in how to conduct themselves and act to transform from the inside out, the previously harmful and narcissistic norms of the patriarchal culture in South Africa. This is a long term plan – but how quickly the next generation arrives! We do not wish to be simply applying a quick plaster to this particular sore during the pandemic. We wish to get to the bottom of the problem of violence and heal it for good. I will hand over to Ebrahim who will be able to give us the perspective of the psychologist.

Ebrahim Moosas
Hello, yes, my work as a professional psychologist has led me to understand something about the construct of masculinity in highly patriarchal societies. I am afraid that the profile of violent masculinity in the South African male is not pretty. Men have inherited cultural and ideological assumptions about their justifiable assertion of rights over an intimate partner. In lockdown women are often confined together with their male abuser and with awful consequences. Violent masculinity goes along with the belief that a man may do what he likes to the woman in his life. Cultural practices and role-models also validate the notion of real men as being rough and tough and getting their way through physical force. Victims of trauma and abuse need rescuing. They also benefit from psychological counseling, as well as coaching in how to break free from the cycle of victimhood. But the real underlying problem remains the dismantling of a culture of violent masculinity. This is a problem relating to how men believe they are entitled to behave. In our country the construction of masculinity exists in an especially vicious form. Men casually resort to violence. As a matter of urgency corrective therapy programs need to be put in place to address errant and violent male behavior and the attitudes that make this problem so rife. As Anni Lama has already indicated, attitudinal change ought, too, to become a focus of educational programs within the schools, and from a young age, attending to the inculcating of values of caring and the settling of difference through civilized conversation and not physical force. It has to be said that the problem of violence is worsened when it is tied to drink and that this widespread abuse of alcohol is a very real adjacent problem that needs to be tackled.

Charles Radlow
I am the last one! I focus on culture studies. COVID-19 reveals that many women live daily lives that are not seen. The United Nations has noted that domestic abuse is one of the greatest human rights violations affecting 1 in 3 women worldwide. Around the world, are cultural and social norms where women are seen as inferior and given fewer opportunities. Men are given the power to act upon them as they please. Understanding how norms are embedded in people’s lifestyles we understand how violence against women is normalized, and even women accept it – women who live in cultures where this type of violence is part of their cultural and social norms will not report their abuser or try to leave. The problem is larger than COVID-19; the presence of violence against women is always present, and even worse, it is often normalized.

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