“Will I Be Next?” Why the Death Penalty Won’t Protect Us (And What Might)*

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Uyinene Mrwetyana, a 19-year old student at the University of Cape Town was raped and killed at the beginning of the month. This sparked mass anger in South Africa against rape, and gender-based violence in general. Every 3 hours a woman is murdered in South Africa. This despicable situation has thrown up the #AmINext movement as a feminist response aimed at fighting back. It has also resulted in calls for the reinstatement of the death as a deterrent.

Claire Cerruti a leading member of Keep Left, the sister organisation of SWL in South Africa looks closely at this issue which is of utmost significance not only in South Africa, as women’s oppression gets entrenched in the light of deepening economic and social crises across the world.     

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The magnificent women’s protests in Cape Town in early September 2019 were a raging fire of hope in a dark time.

The rape and murder of UCT student Uyinene Mrwetyana should once and for all put to rest the common idea that men rape or murder women because of women’s own stupidity. Nene was not drunk, not provocatively dressed, walking late at night, or staying in an abusive relationship.

This should remind us that the thousands of other women raped and murdered every year without any fanfare are equally not to blame. When people say “She was raped because she was walking late at night”, or “She was raped because she was drunk”, they have it backwards. One hundred percent of rape cases have a single thing in common: a rapist. She was raped because someone raped her.

The “rape prevention” measures that women constantly take, which waste so much of our mental energy – how we dress, which route we take when we’re late from work, worrying about getting into get into the last taxi if its full of men, worrying when it’s safe to get drunk – are the prison bars of sexism, yet they still don’t keep us safe.

News of Nene’s death reminded us of this and heightened this constant background fear so that many are now demanding the return of the death penalty.

We do need drastic measures. But the death penalty won’t keep us safe. It comes after the victim is dead. We don’t need vengeance, we need prevention.

There is no evidence at all that the death penalty decreases the murder rate. On the contrary: in the USA, states which have the death penalty have substantially higher rates of murder than states which don’t. Researchers are not 100% certain why this is, but it makes sense: if government sends the message that death is a suitable punishment for wrongdoing, then an abusive person who thinks he is always right will be more confident about murdering a person who isn’t doing what he thinks they should do.

Government has also rejected the death penalty, but in all this time they have not taken any measures to “drain the swamp” (as correctional services puts it) in which rape festers, and they are not saying what measures they are going to put in place now. Therefore we can neither expect them to remain firm on their resistance to the death penalty nor expect any solution without huge pressure and clear demands from our protests.

Expecting the death penalty to solve rape and murder of women makes it seem as if the problem is just a few bad men – monsters, animals, demons who can be picked out of society and then we would be safe.

In reality, the war against women is the result of a systematic social degradation of women – which shapes all men and women to some extent from the time we are born – combined with the intense degradation of life under capitalism today. Together, these create the conditions that can turn quite ordinary men dangerous, and we will not be safe until this changes.

It starts from the seemingly innocent idea that women are naturally suited to doing the work of love – looking after the family, making a home, raising the kids. This, in turn, shapes a widespread, unconscious assumption that women have some kind of innate responsibility for pleasing men, and this is sustained by a lot of seemingly harmless behavior at home and in public. For example, the apparently harmless practice of whistling at a woman who passes you on the street or trying to get her number carries the hidden baggage that you, as a man, are entitled to disrupt her thoughts and interrupt whatever business she is going about and take up her time just because you think she is attractive. The message is that your fleeting erection is more important than anything she is doing.

Women faced with such behavior walk a tightrope: is it a compliment or a threat? Should she respond nicely – but not too nicely because then he might get the wrong idea – or scold him or just ignore, in which case he may get angry?

Woman spend a lot of time in such work of appeasing and pacifying men in various ways, at home, at work and school, in the street, at the post office. When we refuse to perform this circus act, sometimes we meet men who simply take us as human, but the consequences can be serious. Being labelled bitchy or unstable doesn’t seem so bad – until it destroys your prospects at work. And sometimes, the consequence is physical harm or death, apart from the mental harm of never being sure what the result will be. Our experience is that some men can turn from charming to monster in thirty seconds, and it’s hard to predict which ones will. The women who worked with Nene’s murderer were in shock because they always thought he was a nice guy. So women tend to unconsciously keep doing the work, being a “lady” who is always polite, as a practical survival strategy, and therefore even men who don’t expect such deference don’t realise they’re getting it.

Socially acceptable practices such as these are the ground in which rape takes root when some men extend a sense of entitlement to women’s time and smile to include a sense of entitlement to a woman’s body, taken by force if necessary and even her life. The same idea often appears in apparently innocent jokes, such as the idea that if you buy a woman a drink you are purchasing a night of pleasure, or that you have a right to sex from your girlfriend or wife and that women withhold sex as a strategy to manipulate men (rather than seeing that sometimes we’re just not in the mood), or in the ‘sexual consent contract’ that circulated on a university Facebook page under the title ‘Prevent rape’ – as if consent, once given, is permanent and as if sex is a commodity to get and have, rather than an interaction between two people.

Even in the middle of the rape and femicide crisis, much of the anti-rape rhetoric still invites men to imagine women as somehow the property of men:  “Imagine if it was your sister or mother” and “Real men must protect women”.

We do of course want men who stand shoulder to shoulder with us when other men act trashy, but we don’t want our safety to be chained to a man (especially when so much violence is done to women by intimate partners). We also don’t want men to think that the woman who isn’t an innocent church girl like his sister is fair game. What we need is for all women to be treated as humans in our own right, with full control over our own bodies, and we want men who will interact with us as humans, not as bouncers.

The idea that men are the providers, protectors and therefore patriarchs of the families which women must nurture are part of the problem, not its solution. It encourages men to measure their self-worth in physical strength, forcefulness, and control of income, and in this framework, women who don’t go along with men’s desires, or who earn more than men do, are seen as breaking the family and thereby become a threat to the whole moral fabric of society. The related idea that ‘boys don’t cry’ produces men with a stunted ability to express or even understand their own negative emotions such as sadness, fear, frustration, and rejection. For too many men, anger is the only way to express any and all of these. The socially desirable notion of the family man is thus transformed into a monstrous, all-consuming need to “show her who is the boss”. This frequently makes the family a dangerous place for women and children and extends far beyond it to poison men’s relations with women in every sphere of life.

Capitalism after neo-liberalism is the shaker for this toxic cocktail. It has feminized the workforce through extending precarious work while destroying thousands of permanent ‘core’ jobs. Women are now more and more likely to be breadwinners but without gaining much economic power, while the socially acceptable source of self-esteem for men as providers becomes increasingly precarious. The family takes strain as the household, and especially women within it takes on extra work to fill in for what the state and capital aren’t providing, such as caring for elderly relatives or making things at home to save buying them. Everyone is insecure about the future. Poverty and inequality alongside blocked aspiration is making transactional sex – the blesser culture – more and more common. Employers demand sex for jobs.

Fearful men fret that they won’t find love without money, or that their exhausted wives no longer respect them or are cheating on them, or simply lash out at the softest target they can find; some clutch at the straw of forced sex to feel important and powerful.

Then there is also the ongoing trauma of centuries of racial oppression, plus white men’s fear of losing their sense of automatic superiority; and the individualizing drive of neoliberalism, which, in order to destroy social welfare, told us we are each personally responsible for our own success and wellbeing. We retreat into atomized households, women become punch bags for emotionally unstable men who cannot access mental health services, and, even if the neighbours can hear us scream, they stay out of “other people’s business”.

The death penalty will solve none of this, and it will strengthen the idea that violence is a legitimate response to the social disruption caused by capitalism.

To protect ourselves as women, we need to attack this whole set up root and branch.

That doesn’t mean we should wait, dying in numbers, for the complete transformation of society. This is the fight to transform society.

It’s a fight not only to change attitudes but to transform the material conditions and social relations that nourish these attitudes.

First and foremost, it is crucial to continue organizing, as women, and to continue the path of disruptive actions which don’t care for the false respectability of politely influencing policy on paper. We need change, not nice words.

We also need to demand active support from men around politics that opposes victim-blaming and shifts the blame squarely onto rapists and the system which sustains them and leaves out “men as protectors” narratives in favour of “women as humans”. Most men don’t want to be rapists, even when they are complicit in the behaviours which sustain rape culture or when they don’t clearly understand what rape is and how it destroys us. Pilot projects with school-age kids show that discussions about what rape actually is, involving boys and girls, do make it less likely for those boys to force sex later. At the same time we are unlearning, as women, the tolerance of trashy behavior which society encourages in us. There is no need for us to police our anger in doing this, but it’s crucial to pressure men to take up this struggle – first because it’s more important to teach men how not to rape than to tell girls – falsely – how to avoid rape, and second because we are going to need a united power to win the social transformation required.

Our demands to government should center around material measures to reduce women’s vulnerability and to improve the living standards and security of women and men.

The government must pour money into anti-sexism programs such as those described above in every workplace and school, as well as into attacking the prejudices of police and many health care workers, and into plentiful mental health facilities as well as shelters for abused women.

To reduce women’s vulnerability, we need solar-powered electrification in every residential area, so that streets are well lit and homes are comfortable, as well as community centers and pleasant, safe public space to help bring people out of the isolation of their homes and rebuild a sense of community. There must be a massive increase in decent public housing, so that no woman goes with or stays with a man for fear of being homeless, and not on the margins of cities but in the prime areas close to work opportunities so that women spend less time traveling. Public transport must be free, plentiful, extensive and round-the-clock. There must be high quality, 24-hour childcare in every workplace and every community so that women don’t become prisoners at home and children can be exposed to many different role models.

Women currently earn R75 for every R100 that men earn on average. We need equal wages so that women are not only financially free of men, but also seen as their equals. This requires more than a law saying equal pay for equal work – most of this difference is because of the kinds of jobs women are channeled into. Crucially, this means we have to oppose outsourcing and casualization and demand secure, well-paid jobs for all who want them, and not a minimum wage but a living wage for all. Moreover we must attack the massive inequalities between all wages and CEO’s profits.

Housework must be recognized as work and men as well as women must get proper parental leave when children arrive.  Therefore, we also need to increase state support to all who can’t work, for whatever reason and remove the stigma that unemployment equals laziness-men’s mental health will also benefit from this and help to reduce the feeling that women and children are a burden rather than a voluntary joy.

Capitalism sustains the privatized, individualized family because it’s cheap and profitable. Working women and men carry the cost of reproduction while capital picks and chooses amongst our children to expand its profits. Any step to increase social responsibility for the services which the family provides will help to break the mental link between home-women-service and increase the possibility for women to move in the world as people, not as servants or sexual objects.

the article was first published by Keep Left, here.

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