Gender-based violence and femicide threaten our common humanity and the greater good

Posted on November 28, 2022

Despite our best efforts, South Africa is still plagued by endemic levels of gender-based violence and femicide (GBVF); a case in point is the never-ending stream of accounts of GBVF in the media.

In October alone, over 100 news articles related to GBVF have been published. And, while reporting on cases of GBVF does keep the issue at the forefront of the public mind, how this reporting is done can easily become problematic.

Sectors of South African media, like other global media, tend to sensationalise issues which can either create and shape or reinforce problematic narratives. Thus, apart from policy and legislative reforms, an important element of the struggle against GBVF is a critical assessment and engagement with public and media discourses.

On 10 October 2022, the media was inundated with reports by the police who had discovered the bodies of six women after they were called to investigate an unpleasant smell. Since then, many more articles have been published, seemingly to keep the public updated as the case continues to develop, and more information comes to light. The majority of the media reports barely mention the victims beyond creating an eye-catching headline.

Instead, the spotlight has been focused on the perpetrator. What is critical here is that rarely do media reports humanise the victims of GBVF, who remain shadowy victims and crime statistics in follow-up reportage.

Sensationalist language is commonly used in the media when reporting instances of GBVF, especially in the headlines. Words that come up time and time again include but are not limited to terror, alarming, emergency, monster(s), carnage, and scourge.

Dr Floretta Boonzaier, a professor in psychology at the University of Cape Town, argues that this alarmist narrative is effective for a few reasons. The most obvious reason is that it is extremely effective in grabbing the reader’s attention which in turn can be monetised. This is particularly relevant in a competitive industry vying for readers’ attention in an increasingly globalised world.

One of the easiest ways of capturing the reader's attention is by sensationalising the story.

A second reason why the media utilises alarmist narratives is that it creates a feigned sense of moral outrage amongst their readers. According to Dr Boonzaier, this makes the reader feel a sense of satisfaction that they are concerned with such violence.

The issue is that this is where the engagement stays. The reader is not prompted to gain a deeper understanding of the conditions that enable GBVF. The moral outrage does not translate sufficiently, and efficiently, into actions to counteract GBVF. And finally, alarmist narratives tend to depict GBVF as something unexpected that happens to other people, therefore, being someone else’s problem.

The reader is not able to relate to the exaggerated, almost theatrical quality of reports on GBVF. Dr Boonzaier highlights that dramatising cases of GBVF has been proven to desensitise those who consume large amounts of such content. This then cycles back to the promotion of GBVF as something that happens to the ‘other’ and, by default, someone else’s problem to deal with.

A consequence of this is the eliding of the more ‘mundane’ instances of GBVF, those occurring within the private spaces of domesticity, the everyday encounters with ‘normalised’ aggressions and behaviours.

Current efforts addressing GBVF, such as legislative reforms, have increased support for victims in the private sector and public education on matters surrounding GBVF, economic empowerment programmes for women, etc. and have managed to achieve marginal success. But this is insufficient as it addresses the symptoms and not the cause of GBFV.

That GBVF is the flip side of a dysfunctional society whose first resort is brutal violence – as evident in daily reporting of brutal crimes other than GBVF – is widely understood, yet South African society has hardly begun to deal with the collective trauma that underpins this brutality in all its forms. This collective trauma has historical roots which feeds the collective betrayal of the promise of democracy.

While the media must continue reporting on instances of GBVF, this reporting has to go beyond the headlines, sensationalism and alarmist reportage. The enormous power of the media should be harnessed to enable positive change, especially concerning GBVF.

This can only happen if, reportage of GBVF goes beyond the dramatic instances/cases of GBVF to also include the more ‘mundane’ instances, thus shining a light on just how pervasive it is, in which case addressing it at multiple levels is in the interest of the public good rather than only in the interest of women.

This reductive approach to GBVF reportage, which frames this violence as a danger to women and children only, is yet another elision of its detrimental impact on the larger society. Its existence corrodes our common humanity and its sensationalist framing ignores just how detrimental it is to the greater good.

GBVF is the problem of all of society and not only women, women’s organisations and advocacy groups, legislators and law enforcement.

Lisa McDermid is a master’s student in the Department of Historical and Heritage Studies at the University of Pretoria. Her MA focuses on intersections between advocacy and activist organisations and state responses to GBVF, with a particular focus on the Uyinene Foundation.

This article first appeared on IOL on 24 November 2022.

- Author Lisa McDermid

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