Are families at the heart of our gender-based violence response?

Dr Esther Muia - representative in South Africa UNFPA. (Photo: Elvis Ntombela)

Dr Esther Muia - representative in South Africa UNFPA. (Photo: Elvis Ntombela)

An attitude shift at the community level as well as family level needs to happen to decrease gender-based violence in South Africa, panelists said at a Mail & Guardian critical thinking forum hosted by M&G in partnership with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) last week.

The forum sought to answer the question: what works to address gender-based violence in South Africa? It presented evidence to audience members from an independent evaluation of the joint programme “A Safer South Africa for Women and Children”.

The three-year programme ran from April 2012 to September 2015 and was co-ordinated jointly by the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef), UNFPA and Save the Children South Africa (SCSA) with the goal of increasing security and justice for women and children in South Africa. The programme received financial support from the British Department for International Development.

The panelists offered their perspectives for sustainable solutions that may change mindsets for the better.

Cathy Chames, managing member of development consultancy Southern Hemisphere, presented an evaluation of the programme which stated that any future programmes targeting gender-based violence need to include interventions that target the family and the community.

She said community dialogues “are certainly an effective means for mobilising social change and raising awareness … but you can’t have just once-off interventions, [you also] need systematic post-mobilisation interventions”. 

School-based interventions, including children’s committees and girls and boys education movements were also “effective platforms for change”.

Chames said children who were involved in these youth programmes had shown a great shift in attitudes towards violence.

“Young people in the programmes became agents of change improving safety at schools and really taking on the [issue of] violence against women and children, not just in their schools, but extending their activities into their communities as well.”

Interventions needed to include traditional leaders, she said, “because they are mediators and gatekeepers for the community” and use local, community-based organisations to mobilise social change.

But even if interventions by nongovernmental organisations and government are successful, there needs to be supportive, budgeted, long-term strategic plans and political will to ensure a lasting effect.

“How do you sjambok (whip) someone to death?… There were community [members] around, but what? ‘It’s not my business’?” Mbuyiselo Botha, commissioner for the Commission for Gender Equality, asked audience members at the forum in Sandton.

He said people need to be galvanised into action.

“I’m not talking about kangaroo courts … I’m talking about where people feel revolted that [someone] can do this in my presence…” 

Dr Esther Muia, UNFPA representative in South Africa, said her friends told her that “when we were growing up, young people respected older people”.

“What has happened [that] we are mimicking other countries that we think are doing well at development? What can we pick up that we could do better, which we have put aside?”

Gugulethu Ndebele, chief executive for SCSA, questioned what South Africans needed to do to support healthy family units.

“When I grew up, family was the centre ... in communities, my child was your child and vice versa …  the community took responsibility for the growth and protection of the child.”

Ndebele quoted worrying statistics from the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention, which said in 2013 that more than a third of South African children were being raised in single parent families. She said 15.3% were being raised in homes run by grandparents and there were also far too many child-headed households. She said 23.7% reported that at least one of their siblings had been in jail and 9.4% said one of their parents had been involved in crime.

“Those households pose a risk to circumstances for children. What has gone wrong in the structure of the community that a child is seen as something that can be sacrificed?”

Muia said as much as government leadership and co-ordination is critical, if we are to make a difference in violence against women and children “it’s even more important to ensure community involvement to find lasting solutions and to improve accountability”.

“We often go in [to communities] thinking we know best but communities often know, [already] what they need to fight violence.” 

The Safer South Africa programme aimed to mobilise communities to establish change. Together with implementing partners, such as loveLife, Sonke Gender Justice and the National Institute Community Development and Management, communities have been mobilised through community dialogues and developed community action plans. 

Chames emphasised that those action plans need to be placed in Integrated Development Plans for sustainability purposes. The evaluation shows that the co-ordination mechanism at local, provincial and national level needs to be strengthened to support interventions. 

Botha underlined the importance of working with men and boys. Men need to work alongside women to support gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls. Sonke Gender Justice has targeted men and boys and successfully set up Community Action Teams. The teams mobilise communities to prevent violence against women and children and engage in local processes. 

Patrizia Benvenuti, head of Child Protection at Unicef, said the majority of child victims of violence were under the age of five.

“These children became victims of homicide [often] as a result of harsh forms of recurrent discipline, and because of their extreme fragility.”

Studies had also shown that the next spike in victim figures occurred among adolescent boys who engaged in gang-related violence. “What happened in their backgrounds that they are [engaging] in interpersonal violence at the community level?” asked Benvenuti.

She spoke about the structure of families in South Africa today: “Only 36% of children live with their parents; millions live in poverty and many in chronic poverty.”

Benvenuti said studies revealed that children living in households with one parent or households that experience chronic poverty, “where there is a lot of conflict and problems with substance abuse are at much higher risk of becoming victims of physical and sexual violence”.

“We see a tremendous need to strengthen families. [We need to] prioritise families,” she said.

But being alarmist about these statistics was not helpful, said Benvenuti.

“We need to be positive: we are in 2015, we are in a country with a very strong democracy, we have a very strong government, we have resources, we know more than we knew before … so tackling violence shouldn’t be mission impossible.”

One successful intervention by government in alleviating poverty was child support grants, which were reaching millions of children but were not uplifting families, she said.

“There is often a sense of desperation, isolation, [and] frustration” in the families who were benefiting from these grants, which was not being addressed.

“Look at those families receiving child support grants and have those families visited by social workers,” she said.

Benvenuti wrapped up her contribution by saying interventions that lasted for only two years, for example, were inadequate.

There needed to be “sustained, long term investment in the sector”. Only then would communities “adopt a [real] mind-shift”.

Victoria John

Victoria John

Victoria studied journalism, specialising in photojournalism, at Rhodes University from 2004 to 2007. After traveling around the US and a brief stint in the UK she did a year's internship at The Independent on Saturday in Durban. She then worked as a reporter for the South African Press Association for a year before joining the Mail & Guardian as an education reporter in August 2011. Read more from Victoria John