South Africa's National Strategic Plan on Gender-Based Violence and Femicide acknowledges that the country is one of the most violent places in the world, with "one of the highest murder rates found globally outside of a war zone."
Gender-based violence (GBV) is an especially disturbing and escalating challenge in South Africa, where at least 10,818 cases of rape were recorded in the first three months of 2022 alone. The true number of cases is likely much higher, according to research, as only 1 in 25 rapes are reported to the police.
Young black women are at particular risk of gender-based violence. Here, South African teenager Owethu Amahle Mahlalela shares her experiences of being a young woman growing up in a country where violence is always top of mind — and why she chooses to raise awareness about GBV through her poetry.
Read Owethu's story — and one of her original poems, "Femicide" — below. You can read more from the In My Own Words series here.
When I die, I want to make sure that I'm remembered for extraordinary things, as someone who spoke up for what she believes in and impacted people's lives in a positive way.
That's why, as a 15-year-old girl born and raised in Mpumalanga, South Africa, I refuse to be silent about gender-based violence in my country.
Gender-based violence in South Africa is disturbing. Walking down the street is a petrifying experience. I believe every woman has experienced some form of violation, whether it's unsolicited pictures, cat-calling, being groped without consent, or rape. I know too many people who have been raped, and I cannot live with that — I can only imagine what survivors go through.
I struggle to express my emotions and feelings verbally, which is why I enjoy writing so much — I know I have a gift, and it would be a shame if I didn’t do anything with it.
I started writing poetry in 2021, around my March holidays. I had just finished watching a TikTok video of a man justifying GBV by saying “not all men” are abusers. These types of videos show up on my "For You" page quite a lot, but that one video made me livid.
As someone who engages in debating at school, I always try to be objective and do thorough research before I form my opinions. I knew the phrase “not all men” was wrong — an argument used to deflect blame around sexual assault — but I watched more videos to try to understand why some people say it.
Every video I watched of someone using the phrase was an effort to discredit the fact the overwhelming majority of sexual harassment and assault cases globally are true, or try to invalidate a rape victim’s story where she has referred to men as a whole. That’s when I drew the conclusion that the people who use that phrase are just trying to suppress survivors' voices.
I also realised that men know when what they are doing is wrong. They know what “no” means. So the impact I want my poetry to have is to make people uncomfortable and to call out people that do certain things, rather than only educating people on certain topics. I write to create scenarios that people have been in, so they can realise what happened to them or what they did.
Gender-based violence in South Africa is so common that at some point I became desensitised to it, because it was an everyday thing. During that time, I also stopped writing. I was tired of signing petitions and having nothing happen. I became so demotivated, until someone very close to me told me that she was raped.
It had to be one of the most heartbreaking things I've ever heard in my life. It made me realise that I shouldn’t be tired or demotivated when I hear things about GBV; instead, I should be doing more and working harder, trying my best to put a stop to it.
The general impact gender-based violence has on girls is terrible. They are told to not wear certain things and then they will be safe, or that they cannot say "no" to a guy when he asks for her number because he might get mad and hurt her. It's always a list of what girls should and should not do, but never about telling boys that they need to respect girls.
I want to see better protectors, not police that will literally sit and do absolutely nothing when you tell them your husband is beating you. I want to see shelters and hospitals that have psychologists and nurses that will help women and children that have been victims of abuse.
My ideal society for women would start with addressing these topics in South African high schools. There are a number of schools, and stories we hear of the school management team, being more worried about the length of girls’ skirts than their actual education. They would rather send the girl home, to make sure she isn’t a “distraction” to boys in her class. They believe in speaking to the girls and telling them that they have no self-respect, instead of addressing the boys.
What confuses me the most is when a school reprimands girls for their choice of clothing, because the male staff members are “uncomfortable.” As if it is the young girl’s fault that the school hires staff — grown men, who probably have wives and kids — looking at children in that way?
The moment girls get to school, male staff members should assume the position of a father or an older brother. I believe that the moment any male staff member comments on anything that a minor is wearing, he should be dismissed immediately.
In addition to schools, my ideal society for women would certainly have a police force that actually protects women, instead of putting them in danger. It’s one thing for the police not to believe you, but it’s another for them to also be the ones that put you in danger.
There was the story of a woman who was assaulted by her partner and left to get help from the police, and the police officer who should have helped her ended up raping her. This is one of the main issues in South Africa; women are not safe even with the people who are supposed to protect them.
Living in South Africa will make you think that all these simple things I am asking for are too far-fetched. But I want things to be different for future generations, and we can only achieve that by acting now.
"Femicide" by Owethu Mahlalela
Femicide is homicide
Women are tired of what they go through, they contemplate suicide
But you decide.
We cannot fight this fight alone, we need you by our side.
We cannot deny, all the women that have cried and cried.
For God's sake, women have died
But instead you guys lied.
"Did you see what she was wearing she basically wanted it"
That's the mentality you guys have that make us just want to quit.
Maybe I didn't say no, but I didn't say yes
Society is broken, society is a mess
A hoodie or a dress, don't ask what I was wearing as if I'm the one at fault
When I'm the victim of the assault
Women are tired of being sexualized
But what can we do when society has already conceptualized
Do we not have rights?
Why must we always fight?
I am not your property.
I deserve to be treated properly.
Like top of the range quality.
With respect and honesty.
I shouldn't be seen as a mockery.
I should be taken care of constantly.
Wives, daughters, aunts, grandmothers, and nieces,
But you just treat us like pieces.
The abuse only increases.
Open your ears and hear our silent cries
Or maybe you will stop when every single woman dies