College of Human Sciences

365 days of living in fear for SA women

Domestic violence increased during the 2020 national lockdown, which is concerning considering that the number of women killed by intimate male partners in South Africa is already four times the global average, writes Prof Nokuthula Mazibuko, Head of Unisa’s Institute for Gender Studies.

If you are a woman in South Africa, you live in constant fear - 365 days of the year - of being the next victim of gender-based violence (GBV). As a gender studies scholar, who specialises in GBV and femicide research, I often say that, unlike most women worldwide, the daily prayers of South African women include pleas to not be raped or murdered, or for their children to be spared from these heinous acts.

It is disheartening to live in a society where these are the thoughts plaguing its women. Even more heart-breaking is that we live a country with citizens who seem to not care about this pandemic that is GBV, which is tearing our communities apart. There can be no doubt that losing women and children at the rate that we are will continue to have devastating consequences for our country.

As we acknowledge the annual 16 days of activism of no violence against women and children, I believe it is important for us to look at GBV in South Africa even within the current context of Covid-19. There is the increase in social and economic pressures brought on by the pandemic; so was an increase in domestic violence against women and children.

Domestic violence, also known as domestic abuse or intimate partner violence, is defined as a pattern of behaviour in any relationship that is used to gain or maintain power and control over an intimate partner. This kind of abuse involves physical, emotional, economic or psychological actions or threats of actions that influence another person. This includes any behaviours that frighten, intimidate, terrorise, manipulate, hurt, humiliate, blame, injure or wound someone. Research has demonstrated that domestic abuse can happen to anyone of any race, age, sexual orientation, religion or gender. It can occur within a range of relationships including couples, who are married, living together or dating, and affects people of all socioeconomic backgrounds and education levels.

Statistics have shown that this form of abuse increased during the 2020 national lockdown, which is concerning considering that the number of women killed by intimate male partners in South Africa is already four times the global average. Research consistently indicates that this country has one of the highest sexual violence rates in the world. A woman is abused every four minutes while three are killed by an intimate partner every day. Unfortunately, these statistics have become just numbers to people, with many pretending that they do not exist, or it will never be one of their own children.

In looking at the GBV issue in terms of broader policy, South Africa remains a signatory to several international and regional pacts that seek to promote and empower women. Together with South Africa’s ratification of international instruments such as CEDAW (Convention to End All Forms of Discrimination against Women), which defines gender violence as human violation, the state acknowledged its duty to intervene proactively to protect women from domestic violence.

There are many impressive policies indeed that exist to address GBV. However, there is either a lack of or poor implementation of these policies, as well as ineffective use of the various campaigns, non-governmental organisations and governmental institutions that can be powerful tools for social change and for empowering women.

We must always remember that, in South Africa, the exposure to violence impacts on the extent to which women can participate in society. These GBV acts also undermine the law of the country, human rights, social and economic rights. While rape and sexual assaults are reported daily to the police, research showcases that not all rape cases are reported to the police, and that there is lack of conviction and prosecution. This has resulted in, as seen in recent years, in some form of public outcry, which has received some attention from government.

The state has planned to amend the Sexual Offences Act and Domestic Violence Act to ensure harsher punishments for offenders. President Cyril Ramaphosa announced an Emergency Response Action Plan (ERAP), which carries a cost of R1.6 billion. It focuses on, amongst others, improving access to justice for survivors of violence and prevention campaigns to change attitudes, behaviour and strengthen the criminal justice process. The president further announced that government would establish a Gender-Based Violence and Femicide Council and approved a National Strategic Plan to guide efforts to eradicate GBV and femicide. However, with all the efforts, women continue to live in constant fear of being the next victim.

It must also be noted that while there are continuous research and media reports on GBV in South Africa, and government commitment to addressing the issue in terms of policy, there appears to be a missing element as the country’s women and children continue to be impacted severely by these issues. There is not a day that goes by without hearing about a woman being raped and/or killed, or a child going missing, being raped or killed. What concerns me is that we’ve seen the urgency in protesting against racist hair advertisements and farm murders, but why not for GBV?

* By Nokuthula Mazibuko, Professor and Head, Unisa Institute for Gender Studies

Publish date: 2020/12/02