Picture: 123RF/ANDRIY POPOV
Picture: 123RF/ANDRIY POPOV

SA women are gearing up for International Women’s Day on Sunday with pepper spray pop-up stalls and rape prevention workshops so they feel safer on their daily commutes.

Students, activists and self-defence professionals say it is better to prepare for an attack than wait for one to happen in a country where a woman is murdered every three hours.

“I was tired of being cat-called, grabbed and made to feel uncomfortable just for wearing a skirt,” says Karabo Moshodi, founder of the #PepperSprayCampaign, which is giving away 1,000 sprays to women in Johannesburg.

About 3,000 women were murdered in SA in 2018 — more than five-times the global average, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO) — as the nation struggles to overcome a history of violence and profound inequality.

A 101-year-old woman was raped by an unknown man who broke into her house on Sunday, according to local media reports — one of the latest brazen attacks in a spate of sex crimes that activists describe as an “epidemic” of violence against women.

In SA, tear-inducing pepper sprays are easily accessible in outdoor camping stores and even pharmacies, ranging in price from R60 to R180. But many women are still unaware that they can carry one to defend themselves, said Moshodi, who hopes to “re-educate [women] on the benefits of pepper spray”.

“Carrying pepper spray with me hasn’t given me complete freedom, just less fear to walk 200m down the road,” said Moshodi, who left her job as a life-skills coach for vulnerable youth to campaign full-time. 

She used crowdfunding to buy the pepper sprays and T-shirts for 15 trained volunteers who will arm and train women.

She plans to use social media on International Women’s Day to connect her campaign to women worldwide. “We are breaking down taboos and myths around women having the right to protect themselves,” she said in a phone interview, adding that women get basic self-defence and pepper spray training before receiving a spray.

Jennifer Brown, a self-defence trainer for women in Johannesburg since 2014, says basic skills can “save lives”. “Violence against women is a global problem,” says Brown who has trained an estimated 8,500 women in rape prevention workshops but is not part of Moshodi’s campaign. “But it does feel more violent and more brutal here in SA.”

City authorities are supporting the #PepperSprayCampaign by providing public spaces, police and help with publicity.

“The city has plans to help expand the campaign to possibly tens of thousands of women,” says Moshodi.

In September, thousands of women took to the streets to protest after a university student, Uyinene Mrwetyana, was raped and killed at a post office in Cape Town.

Soon after, President Cyril Ramaphosa pledged R1bn to tackle violence against women through initiatives such as strengthening the criminal justice system, training healthcare workers, media campaigns and economically empowering women.

But Moshodi says she wanted to do something positive and practical for women herself, rather than wait for the authorities to make Johannesburg safer. “I don’t want to keep complaining and waiting for government to do something. One of my greatest realisations is that the government is not going to save me. I have to save myself.”

Thomson Reuters Foundation

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