A year after the #Sandtonshutdown protests, there has been little movement with regards to protestors’ demands, argues Nomkhitha Gysman. 

Between 2018 and 2019, gender-based violence (GBV) in South Africa escalated and, because of that, two significant protests occurred. On 3 August 2018, we witnessed #Totalshutdown, which was a woman-led march that targeted the presidency. His excellency, President Cyril Ramaphosa, flew back from his other obligations to be able to receive and commit to the demands our fellow women presented. A year after the first march, the #Sandtonshutdown, on 12 September 2019, highlighted business complicity in gender-based violence.

Though a good number of GBV activists took part in both marches and they were viewed successful, I’m yet to hear of actions taken post #Sandtonshutdown.

One of the demands these women made was sensitivity to women in woman-centred industries. This being the incorporation of the protection of women from gender-based violence, sexual harassment, and exploitation; the provision of transport for women working late at night; and workplace support for victims of gender-based violence.

The #Sandtonshutdown demands that were put to companies were conveyed in a memorandum and by placards. One placard that stood out for me, read ‘Make my safety your business’. The message here is clear: When planning, make gender-based violence one of your strategic issues — dedicate resources towards it, and ensure that it is one of the areas to be reported upon at all management and board meetings.

Security of women

This means that within a company’s hierarchy of concerns, GBV should not remain only at the level of social responsibility; it must be a strategic issue for the company. The placard also highlights that GBV has escalated to be an issue that threatens the security of women and it should be treated as such.

The #Sandtonshutdown memorandum was delivered into the hands of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange CEO, Nicky Newton-King, who received it on behalf of the business sector. While Newton-King committed herself to holding a meeting with heads of businesses to discuss the memorandum, I am not aware of any reported progress in implementing the demands. 

Targeting the private sector to act in supporting efforts to fight gender-based violence was one of the best strategies. What happened to the demands? Did businesses fail to implement them or did the #Totalshutdown leaders fail to follow-up or was there something else? 

The private sector was targeted the most.

Protesters wanted this sector to act to fight GBV, as this was a good way to put the message out there, even if there was little response to these demands.

Let us not give in – but continue fighting and, if anything, let this slow response encourage us until our demands are met. They are doable; the only thing we need is a framework of action that can be agreed on between those who want change and those receiving the demands made by the activists and women in general.

I propose that the private sector and #Sandtonshutdown activists sit together and initiate the process. Picking one practical demand that is beneficial to both the female employees and the private sector would be a good starting point.

Once the particular demand has been agreed upon, there needs to be action taken to get the ‘buy in’ of all stakeholders – this should start off by gathering evidence about the effects of, for example, intimate partner violence or domestic violence on each company’s operations and profits.

Commitment

The consequences of violence in the domestic domain has both a direct and indirect impact, in that labour productivity will be affected, thus generating unplanned business costs.

My advice is that GBV activists must meet and discuss critical issues as per their importance and formulate a structure of consultation, which focuses on the workforce and be made marketable to the private sector prior to engaging with the representatives of the businesses.

In this regard, there will be room for both parties to find common ground – for instance, putting in place stringent measures to curb sexual harassment at the workplace will reduce under-performance, absenteeism and staff turnover, and it will decrease the number of disciplinary hearings.

The purpose of this framework is ensuring that consultation between the two parties involved will be sustained and ongoing, meaning that these parties must show commitment to the consultations that are under way.

There must be regular reportage of meeting and their progress. The private sector must show long-term devotion by availing resources rather than proposing once-off solutions when it comes to the corporate social responsibility budget. Should companies take this long-term commitment seriously, this will be a success initiative.

Incentives 

If it is accorded this respect, and the business sector is interested in its ‘sustainability’, certain collaborators should be roped in – for example, forming a partnership with business schools to offer Sustainable Intimate Partner Violence Prevention as a professional certificate for all business executives, or for it be incorporated as a compulsory module for a Master’s Degree in Business Administration. 

Certain incentives could be considered by the government to acknowledge and motivate businesses doing impressive work to curb gender-based violence.

There are best practice case studies, where all role players can draw experiences from – for example, Latin American Business Schools and the private sector have done substantive work on this issue. 

– Nomkhitha Gysman is a gender specialist and former SADC Parliamentary Forum gender specialist.

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