For the past several weeks I have been working at Sonke Gender Justice Network in the Policy Development and Advocacy unit. Sonke’s PDA unit works to influence South African and global policy decisions on gender equality, gender based violence, and sexual and reproductive health rights. During my time here, I have been tasked with helping the Stop Gender Violence Campaign, and it has been an incredibly formative experience for me both professionally and personally as a woman.
As a public policy major, working at Sonke has been both exciting and challenging for me. It’s exciting because I have been able to apply concepts I’ve learned in my classes to work on gender based violence, an issue that has become very salient in my personal life. Sexual violence in particular is an epidemic that is plaguing campuses from South Africa to the United States. It isn’t anything new, but finally people are starting to pay more attention to it as a result of a number of recent high profile cases. From these cases, it’s clear that both universities and legal systems have failed victims of gender based violence.
I say that work at Sonke is also challenging because while I do believe this is vital work, it is easy to become somewhat pessimistic about the end goal of the work. Part of the mission of the Stop Gender Violence Campaign is getting the South African government to adopt a National Strategic Plan (NSP) to end gender based violence. Sometimes I can be skeptical that this will actually change anything for women. It seems really far fetched to me and almost out of reach. This isn’t just about simply ending gender based violence – it’s about fundamentally changing the perception of the identity of women.
At the end of the day, I wonder if a policy will stop every catcall and whistle down the street, every unwarranted touch and grab on a girl’s body at a bar that she didn’t ask for, or every male that a girl has ever tried to just be friends with but didn’t end up as such. I’ve walked Long Street day and night and felt the eyes of strangers staring hard enough to burn holes through my clothes. I wonder if a policy can actually make me feel like I no longer exist only as a visual commodity.
I wouldn’t exactly call myself a visionary, so perhaps I may be thinking too much in the short term and maybe that is clouding my judgment. But sexism, like any other form of discrimination, will always (if not in obvious ways) exist in subtle ways. Women have come a long way from 100 years ago, but we have also adopted and adapted certain practices and rituals into our lives that make us feel safer. We walk around with pepper spray, we hesitate to raise our hands in class, and we are trained to build a thick skin to inappropriate comments, cat calls, and everything in between. I want to know how policy will change this and how policy will translate to social change – I think Sonke has been a good place to start.