Despite the high levels of violence against women, South Africa is undergoing a feminist revolution, according to activists

Two young women stand at the office door of the Callas Foundation in Athlone, Cape Town, waiting for help to register their children at a local primary school. Caroline Peters, its founder, is showing a municipal officer around the non-profit. The official is checking that Peters meets municipal regulations as her organisation is based at her home. Her staff are cooking two large pots of food to be dished out later for people who do not have meals at home.

When Callas sits down to catch her breath, she gets a phone call about yet another woman who needs to get out of an abusive relationship with a man she lives with.

She gets too many of these calls.

“This organisation started because sexually abused women came to my house for help,” says Callas of her work. “Yesterday a woman came here early in the morning. We got her to a shelter and had her husband arrested.”

With the foundation’s involvement, the police came and helped fetch the woman and her children.

Getting the law involved is crucial, says Callas. “Usually in that situation, when a husband comes back home angry, then it’s worse so we wanted her to be out of the area.”

The foundation is one of the many organisations in South Africa that defends women’s rights. They daily mop up women’s blood in a country where gender-based violence comprises some of the most violent crimes: rape, mutilation and murder meted out against even girl children.

It is a continuous war on women, who are also fighting back on various fronts. Femicide in South Africa is five times higher than the global average, with a woman murdered every three hours, according to official statistics. Nearly 150 sexual offences are reported every day, the majority being rape. And activists say this number is significantly lower than reality because people do not trust the police.

Gail Smith, a journalist and feminist who has worked as spokeswoman for the South African Human Rights Commission, says a “feminist revolution is underway in South Africa, challenging patriarchy and its oppression of women”.

Smith was recently the executive producer on South Africa’s first unapologetically feminist talk show, It’s a Feminist Thing, produced for the Soul City Institute which promotes women’s rights.

“If you look at the shutdowns and all of the women’s marches in the last two years, there’s a feminist revolution happening. And women who are fighting the system, there is a demonisation of them.”

While organisations such as the Callas Foundation are working to dismantle abuse in homes and protect women, one of the big steps forward is in challenging inequality by using the legal system. For this, the foundation works with the Women’s Legal Centre.

It has helped in securing inheritance for widows, assisting frontline organisations like the Callas Foundation obtain protection orders for abused women and even protecting women activists from politicians.

The centre’s director, Seehaam Samaai, says: “We all know the legal system is not conducive to women. The law discriminates against women.

“When you go through the criminal justice system there is a lot of secondary victimisation, where the victim has to continually go through the trauma of what she had to go through because the system is not helping women to move forward.”

In a society where men have, and take, power the law is often the one thing that can force a rebalance.

Callas says the Covid-19 lockdowns made this step particularly important, because women could not escape abusive partners at home. “We need to use the law to stop these men.” To this end, the centre got permits to move around and remove women from abusive situations.

She adds: “Women were trapped inside their homes. I would find women outside on the street and ask why are they sitting in the street. They said it would be safer to sit in the street than go home where they are abused.”

Written by: Yazeed Kamaldien
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