Tale of two pandemics: Unmask GBV with COVID-19 vigour

By Bonolo Mahlatsi

Johannesburg – South Africa is dealing with a pandemic within a pandemic.

The country mourned the death of COVID-19 and gender-based violence (GBV) victims from November 25-29 as declared by President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Many saw the period of mourning as a bold move and in support of efforts to deal with GBV. Ironically, the mourning period for COVID-19 deaths falls within the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence.

Almost daily, we mourn the lives of women lost at the hands of men.

However, now that we are living in unfamiliar territory, we also mourn the lives lost due to COVID-19.

Both are pandemics with different characteristics facing the country. The major difference is that COVID-19 is new and in some ways beyond our control.

GBV, on the other hand, is a symptom of patriarchy intentionally designed and reinforced by systems and people to preserve the dominance of men at the expense of women and gender non-conforming people.

Ramaphosa’s announcement makes GBV a shadow pandemic compared to COVID-19, even though GBV has claimed more lives, created more disruption and lasted much longer.

We need to unmask the fact that GBV exists as a pandemic because South African culture allows it and often encourages it.

We can’t treat the two pandemics in the same way. One noticeable difference is how we have treated them in terms of reporting and response time. The COVID-19 response was fast, awareness was quick and effective, and government accountability has improved. More active and robust digital and media strategies are also being used to keep the public informed and to fight the spread of COVID-19.

These are strategies that should have been adopted long ago in the fight against GBV. When the GBV-mourning period is over, it will be business as usual. Women will still be violated and continue to live in fear.

Furthermore, the mourning period takes five days away from the activism period, which I find to be a way of shifting the focus away from GBV.

COVID-19 has presented us with an opportunity to reconfigure and redesign our society to be safe for everyone.

It’s time that we deal with the lack of sensitivity towards GBV, especially because there is no society free of it.

Mahlatsi is a master’s student in sociology at the University of the Free State and a budding academic with interest in ecological and gender justice research.

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