‘Can you hold the Constitution against your vagina, and they’ll stop raping you?’

Posted by: Reader Blog | Date: December 18, 2014 | 1 Comment
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By Sisonke Msimang and Mateenah Hunter

While those of us who grace the opinion pages hold up the Constitution as a powerful force for change, people who are victimised by men with guns and knives and sjamboks and punches and rage on a daily basis are less than enamoured.

There can be no more eloquent articulation of people’s loss of faith in the Constitution than the words of an activist at the People’s Pride march that took place last month. “Can you hold the Constitution against your vagina, and they’ll stop raping you?” The question was a radical provocation. Reflecting on its meaning forces those of us who defend the Constitution to think about whether or not it is a living document that has the ability to deliver practical support to those who need it when they need it.

The question is all the more important as the season in which women’s rights to live free from dignity draws to a close. This year as we celebrate 20 years of freedom — perhaps because of the heightened sense of how far we have come and how much farther we have to go in the achievement of full and equal rights under a democratically elected government — the rhetoric has felt particularly hollow at times.

The 16 days can create the impression that there is a special time for women’s rights. The Constitution on the other hand, has no special day. The Constitution is supposed to work in defence of our dignity all day, every day. When it came into effect in 1996 South Africans believed the Constitution would protect everybody regardless of their social status. The Constitution didn’t care where you came from or what you looked like. In a country in which these factors had always shaped access to justice, this was a profoundly important message.

And yet in the last two decades we have learned that the Constitution doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Much of the initial excitement has faded. In part this is because knowledge of the role and importance of the Constitution has steadily diminished over time. According to the Foundation for Human Rights, only 46% of South Africans know of the Constitution or Bill of Rights and only 10% have ever read it.

While this is disappointing, it is unsurprising. Many South Africans have never even seen a copy of the Constitution. The department of justice and constitutional development indicates that during the 2013/2014 financial year only 30 000 copies of the Constitution were printed; and all of them in English. This financial year the department plans to print 11 000 copies, a third of last year’s amount, but at least this time, in all official languages.

No wonder then, that the Constitution is greeted with scepticism by many ordinary South Africans. The Constitution is in grave danger of being seen as an aspirational document that has no real application. Furthermore, in the context of service-delivery protests, medicine shortages, and an ailing education system, it seems that even our government — a key caretaker of the Constitution — does not consider it a priority to print copies of the Constitution.

This creates a false choice between empowering communities with knowledge and providing direct services. Yet the two go hand-in-hand. Organisations that support communities to take action towards self-improvement and accountability understand that there can be no dichotomy between information and access. They use the Constitution to solve everyday problems.

Ironically, the most difficult part of civic education based on the Constitution is not related to conveying its conceptual framework: when communities understand that the Constitution was written for them, lightbulbs go off. Instead, the difficulty is in leaving a community at the end of a training activity and having to pack up your copy of the Constitution. Constitutions don’t belong in the hands of activists alone — they belong in the hands of South Africa’s learners and farmers and teachers and survivors of violence. They belong in libraries and universities and schools and clinics.

The Constitution matters, not just some days, not just for some people, but for all of us every day. Surely then making copies available isn’t a matter of choice. Ultimately, every South African must know what is in the Constitution (whether they read it themselves or get crucial précis from community organisers like us or from learned bloggers like Pierre de Vos). A country that does not know what is in its Constitution cannot possibly hope to stop rape. If we are unaware of the breadth and depth of the Constitution, we can never expect to ensure the delivery of better services. If we have not looked at the Constitution, how can we know that the president has a duty to account to Parliament?

The sense that the Constitution is hollow, that it does not have a meaningful place in people’s everyday lives, is dangerous. It is dangerous because of the abuse of power that is possible when people are unaware of their rights. But more importantly, it is dangerous because it weakens the vibrancy of our democracy. We might not yet be at a stage where the Constitution stops rape, but it is also true that without the Constitution, without the institutions and mechanisms and laws to which it has given rise, rape would proceed without impediment.

As Albert Einstein once said, “The strength of the Constitution lies entirely in the determination of each citizen to defend it. Only if every single citizen feels duty bound to do his share in this defence are the constitutional rights secure.”

Sisonke Msimang and Mateenah Hunter work for Sonke Gender Justice, which is a member of the Know Your Constitution Campaign.

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  • http://www.lovespellsi.co.za Sally Joshua

    its quite an interesting symbolism