South African feminist a global voice for women

After six years on the job as a UN special rapporteur, Rashida Manjoo is optimistic that it is possible to eradicate violence against women. Based in Cape Town, her job is to make sure governments uphold women’s human rights in South Africa and abroad.

Rashida-Manjoo Rashida Manjoo, second from right, has spent most of her working life advocating women’s rights. As the United Nations special rapporteur on violence against women, her influence is global. Here, Manjoo, interacts with displaced women in Abu Shouk camp for internally displaced persons, near El Fasher, North Darfur, during a visit to Sudan to discuss her mandate. (Image: Hamid Abdulsalam, UNAMID)

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Shamin Chibba

Several decades before Rashida Manjoo became the United Nations’ special rapporteur on violence against women, there was a sign of where her destiny lay. In a photograph of her as a child, she stands alongside her mother and five siblings; her sisters all wear dresses while Manjoo has on a pair of tracksuit pants.

“I always smile when I see that photo,” she says. She may not have known it back then but she was already expressing the feminist ideals with which she would become so entwined.

The Durban-born feminist lawyer is a private person, coming across as soft-spoken, but she is the biggest voice for women’s rights globally today. Manjoo has held the rapporteur position for the last six years and in that time has exposed Britain’s underlying sexist culture and has addressed the issue of violence against women with disabilities.

Manjoo’s mandate as the UN special rapporteur is straightforward – to make sure governments uphold women’s human rights.

When former UN secretary-general Kofi Anan appointed her in 2009, he said the special rapporteurs, of which there are many, were the eyes and ears of the human rights system. “We seek and receive information,” explains Manjoo.” We talk to governments and activists to get an objective analysis on the situation in any given country. We remind governments of their obligation to international law.”

Widely known in the international women’s rights movement, Manjoo was nominated by various related bodies to be the special rapporteur. Her position is purely voluntary yet she puts in up to 20 hours of work a day.

Shaped by apartheid and poverty

Growing up in Durban during apartheid, Manjoo has long been aware of the injustices towards women. This insight later led to her becoming a feminist lawyer and women’s rights activist. “I grew up in poverty and a highly racialised world with very few opportunities. So you either got strong or accepted your situation.

“The starting point for any South African of colour dealing with social injustice and inequality in the past, especially from when you were little, raises consciousness about dealing with these problems than to live with it.”

She was raised in a supportive environment, where the strength of women was apparent. Her grandmother, who lost her husband at a young age, reared her children on her own while running a small store. Then, her parents put their children’s education first.

One of Manjoo’s greatest influences was Navi Pillay, a Durban-born jurist who served as the UN’s high commissioner for human rights from 2008 to 2014. After completing her law degree, Manjoo did her clerkship under Pillay. She also offered her legal services to the poor for free. “I didn’t care about money or anything like that because I understood the people from disadvantaged backgrounds, having come from a life of poverty myself.”

In the early 1990s, Manjoo really started taking an interest in women’s rights issues.

Currently a professor in the department of public law at the University of Cape Town, Manjoo has chosen to do her work as a rapporteur in the Mother City. Here she is close to the grassroots of the women’s rights movement. “I had to keep the relationship with grassroots organisations to understand the context. Being at a high level can pull one away from the reality. Part of me thinks you can become egotistical and focus too much on the theory. There is no way you can change things on the ground through reports. You have to remain on the ground.”

Watch Rashida Manjoo explain her mandate as UN special rapporteur:

Commission on Gender Equality

Manjoo has been involved in several initiatives that have directly affected South African women. She was parliamentary commissioner on South Africa’s Commission on Gender Equality and was a member of the committee that drafted South Africa’s Domestic Violence Act.

But as the UN’s special rapporteur, her work has global ramifications. In 2014, she garnered worldwide attention when, after a 16-day investigation of the UK, she said violence against women throughout that country remained a pervasive challenge.

The British media criticised Manjoo for the report, especially targeting her claim of a sexist culture in the country. But her backers within the same media said most people misunderstood her. Laura Bates from The Guardian newspaper noted that Manjoo’s “reference to sexist culture somehow became confused with a direct comparison of rates of violence against women”.

Australian author Kathy Lette agreed with the rapporteur, saying that in a country as wealthy, well-educated and liberal as Britain sexism should be unacceptable. The author of We Need to Talk about Kevin, Lionel Shriver, said Manjoo’s comparative approach may not have been very useful but that Britain was a “little behind the United States” in eradicating sexism. It still had a long way to go, Shriver added.

What the British media did not understand was that she was not referring to violence against women as another term for domestic violence but as a structural problem that cascaded from the highest level of government to the layman.

“Violence against women is not a welfare or charitable issue,” says Manjoo. “It can manifest economically, sexually, structurally, emotionally and physically. It doesn’t matter the manifestation, though. Any act, verbal or physical, that takes away my dignity, rights and bodily integrity is a violation.”

It is her job to make governments understand this.

Empowerment and transformation

Manjoo has travelled across the globe to investigate the status of women, and does not believe there is one country that can be a good example for the rest of the world. Each nation has its own standards and cultures, she says, and has to be approached within its context. “I don’t believe in the notion of best practice. As human beings we are not all the same.”

Nordic countries, she says, consider themselves to be amazing. They invest a lot of resources and set up systems to address violence against women but even then, “it’s never about who is better than whom”.

When it comes to violence against women, all countries experience one major problem – how to prevent it. She says prevention can only occur when empowerment and transformation are included within the structures. “If we address the power of women rather than rescuing them, we give them tools to become active agents.”

We will be facing the problem head-on, she stresses, if we transform society, challenge patriarchy and take those efforts beyond celebrations like Women’s Day and 16 Days of Activism. “We can’t just have a Women’s Day or month and think that will help. We’re scratching the surface and thinking we are changing society. It is just a Band-Aid. The challenge is how we understand transformation.

“Transformation is a perpetrator saying ‘I’ll never do it again.’ The state needs to take responsibility to deal with harmed individuals and to provide a coherent, sustainable and stable response to violence against women.”

Her home country is an example of a state not taking responsibility, Manjoo says. “Domestic violence is not seen as a high-level crime in South Africa. If you give a police officer a domestic violence case they see it as being punished, that it is not real police work.”

Watch Rashida Manjoo, speak to members of the media at a Kabul press conference, detailing her assessment of the situation of Afghan women in November 2014.

Status of women in South Africa

Yet she believes South Africa has great legislation that protects women. “It is proactive. Even the Bill of Rights [Section 12C], which states a person is to be free from all forms of violence, is amazing.”

However, the country’s biggest challenge remains implementation of these laws; things will not work out just because we have good legislation. “If the justice system sends a message that we treat violence against women as less meaningful, then it falls short.”

She says the country does not provide an environment that makes it easy for survivors of violent or sexual offences to come forward. “There was a minister who asked ‘What do we do to get rape survivors to come forward?’ But the state should actually be asking what it should do to be more approachable. Unresponsive systems put people off.”

South Africa does not provide a holistic response for survivors. There is a lack of financial support and shelters for both women and their children.

South Africa represents a missed opportunity to the special rapporteur. Since 2012, Manjoo has been trying to secure a fact-finding mission to investigate violence against women in the country. But when she was finally invited this year, the government postponed her trip without confirming another date.

But after six years on the job, she remains optimistic that it is possible to eradicate violence against women. “It can be eradicated if we tackle it on different levels. We can’t see violence against women as individual events but as a widespread problem within a structure. As long as we don’t tackle the structure then we would have lost it.”

She offers one final thought on eradicating the problem, which she has shared with activists at seminars and in reports she has written. There is very little accountability around the world, she says. Perpetrators and states are not being held responsible for the problem yet they need to be accountable. “Accountability is crucial because if it is there, we are saying that we don’t tolerate violence against women.”