“Wathint’ abafazi wathint’ imbokodo” you strike a woman you strike a rock. A phrase that has wrung for decades as a war cry for women in South Africa. A reminder passed across generations of the “strength” women possess. Women are strong, resilient and do not break easily, just like a rock. Except this is not true, women are not rocks. They are human. They are flesh and blood. If you punch her, she will break, if you cut her, she will bleed and if you rape her, you will leave her traumatized and if you choke her, she will die.
Statements like these appear to be positive, but in reality, help to perpetuate and reinforce the harmful narrative that women are born hard and tough, and as a result you can treat them however you want. In marriage, women are encouraged to hold on, no matter how abusive the situation. Some families go as far as telling their daughters that the only way to leave a marriage is in a coffin, and far too often women do.
It is this idea that women do not break that has allowed abusers to thrive and has prevented women from seeking help. When women try to find help from law enforcement, from their communities and their families, they are told to be strong. “Qinisela” – be strong, “bekezela” – be patient”.
In one of our community engagement sessions with local leaders, a woman who is in her late 70s advised us that it is perfectly fine, in fact encouraged for a man to beat his wife. How else does he show his affection and discipline her? Additionally, it gives the wife an opportunity to show that she is strong and not easily broken. If that is the case, then by all means let us be weak. Let us be considered weak if weakness will save our lives. This interaction was a jarring reminder of how much further we have to go as a society in order to shift toxic ideologies and “cultural” standards that make unwilling martyrs of women. A direct link can be drawn between these harmful ideologies and the fact that a woman is murdered every 3 hours in South Africa, or that in the last year an average of 146 women reported cases of sexual assault daily. This number is shocking considering these are the ones who do actually report their cases as most women do not report for various reasons.
When women go and report incidents of abuse and assault to the police, they are often asked the nature of the relationship between them, and the answer determines the priority the officers give to the case. As if being intimately acquainted with a person who punched you makes the impact of the blow any less. The idea that to be strong in a relationship means accepting toxicity as well as physical and emotional abuse must fall away. Women who do decide to leave abusive situations find themselves carrying a heavy mental load. On the one hand, she is trying to regain herself and find her way outside of the control of her abuser. And on the other she is forced to deal with external (and internal) voices that accuse her being weak and tell her she should have held on a little longer.
We need a society that recognizes the fragility of women and the need to stop abusing them. Women are fragile, not because of some antiquated notions, but because they are human and humans are fragile. Human break, physically and emotionally, that is natural. And championing anything that seeks to go against nature itself by hardening what is soft, is killing us and should stop. Women are humans and are worthy of that respect. Just because a woman chooses to rise above her challenges and overcome, does not mean that this a sign of some extra strength inside of her. To be a rock is to be hardened by life, toughened by bruises and scars. Women in South Africa are longing for soft lives.
For the world to work and for our communities to thrive we need both men and women to be protected and feel safe in the communities they live in. Women need to know that it is okay to leave unsafe spaces. This Woman’s Day, it is time we redefine strength as a nation. Strength is leaving, choosing yourself, and your children’s safety. Strength is seeking help if you don’t know how to get out. It is also time to realise as equal citizens, women’s day should be everyday, and every month, woman’s month.
WOMEN ARE HUMAN