A political response to gender-based violence

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According to a 2014 study by KPMG, GBV costs South Africa between R28.4-billion and R42.4-billion a year, or between 0.9% and 1.3% of GDP annually. 

The national lockdown resulted in a sharp increase in GBV, but it also led to an increase in awareness of the issue, thanks to an initiative by the ANC and its alliance partners, which focused on the role men can play in bringing an end to the brutality. Examining the roots of the scourge, they called for an end to the current patriarchal social system, and for analysis and intervention in the role South Africa’s traumatic past has played in GBV.

Apartheid left South Africa with an unusual pattern of family structure: nearly half of all households are female-headed, due to the homeland policy and migrant labour system. By 2002, the proportion of children with absent (but living) fathers was 46%. This has major implications for poverty — with one-parent homes and those headed by women being the poorest families — and high levels of domestic violence, according to a research paper by Morrell, Jewkes, & Lindegger, 2012, Hegemonic Masculinity/Masculinities in South Africa: Culture, Power, and Gender Politics. “This is likely due to the sense of powerlessness and aggression that comes with poverty, as well as the hyper-masculinity that emerged as a means to overcompensate for the lack of masculine training that boys are missing from their absent fathers.” 

It is essential that men become involved in initiatives that counter GBV. (Photo: Elmond Jiyane, GCIS)

ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa announced a campaign with targeted literature to help make people aware of GBV and women’s empowerment. The ANC and its alliance partners called on men to self-reflect, be accountable and go beyond paying lip service to GBV: “The men of South Africa, we must be in the forefront. We must be the ones who take up the struggle. We cannot let the women of our country take up this struggle on their own,” said the president during a virtual Tripartite Alliance dialogue on GBV.

Cosatu Northern Cape issued a statement in its state of the province address on June 19 2020 on GBV: “The federation is also outraged by the malady of GBV and the senseless rape and butchering of women and children. We are devastated by the recent case where on Sunday, 14th June 2020, a woman was killed in the town of Hartswater in Phokwani region. This is one death too many and therefore demand that the law enforcement agencies must ensure that the perpetrator is brought to book and receives [the] maximum jail sentence.”


The South African Communist Party’s Solly Mapaila called on the alliance to develop a system to fight patriarchy and capitalism in communities to defeat GBV. “That system needs to be created to fight against that on a street level, and the alliance movement is best capable to create the possibility to fight against that and create the possibility for mobilisation and to fight against gender-based violence.”

This came after the murder of heavily pregnant Tshegofatso Pule, whose body was found hanging from a tree, which generated widespread outrage. Co-founder of Sonke Gender Justice Bafana Khumalo called out political leaders for inconsistencies in their calls for an end to GBV compared to the way they carry themselves, even in the National Assembly. “You, as leaders of society, must lead from the front: when society observes you behaving in particular ways, many take it as a norm to be followed,” Khumalo said.

In recent months, the government has finalised the National Strategic Plan on GBV and Femicide and the Emergency Response Action Plan (ERAP), and there’s a roadmap to appoint a National Council on GBV and femicide.

Corporate involvement in challenging GBV

Internationally, the #MeToo movement has shown how societal attitudes to sexual harassment and abuse at the workplace can be fundamentally altered. Corporates have a role to play in extending this awareness to other forms of GBV, not only in the workplace but also in the home — albeit GBV is a complex issue for companies.

Given that perpetrators rely on fear, coercion and control to keep their victims from speaking out, many companies wonder whether they can take action on a problem outside of the workplace. In an article on the IFC (International Finance Corporation)’s website, the financier assures companies that they can do so, by putting policies in place that support employees.

Police records reveal that more than 100 women are raped each day in South Africa. (Photo: AFP/Marco Longari)

Dr Jane Pillinger, an independent researcher and policy advisor, said in an interview that globally about one in three working women experience gender-based violence in their lifetimes — often at the hand of a partner. But companies can help their employees by instituting policies to create a safe space without incurring high costs.

“Companies can provide paid domestic leave, train managers, offer support for victims, and hold perpetrators accountable,” she said. “For example, if anyone were to use workplace resources to perpetrate domestic violence — such as mobile phones, tablets or computers — it could lead to automatic dismissal.”

She also advocates for prevention measures, including putting security measures in place to prevent assault or stalking (for example, in parking lots); changing workplace phone numbers or email addresses; and offering flexible work hours.

The article points out that such policies can have a beneficial impact on the bottom line, through reduced absenteeism. It quotes an IFC client in the Solomon Islands, Sol Tuna, which reduced absenteeism by 25% through a range of gender-smart initiatives, including putting policies in place for creating a respectful workplace, addressing sexual harassment, and supporting employees affected by domestic violence. It also trained women and men in financial literacy and opened new, better-paying job opportunities for women, including in professions traditionally dominated by men, such as electricians and plumbers.

Surviving GBV

Research on the actual number of South African women who have been raped is imprecise, but a figure of 40% regularly quoted. However, when this statistic was fact-checked by Africa Check, it was not supported.

Africa Check states: “A 2010 study by non-profit organisation Gender Links estimated that 25.3% of women in Gauteng province had been raped by a man, whether a husband or boyfriend, family member, stranger or acquaintance. The study used a representative sample of 511 women. A similar study, conducted in the Western Cape province in 2014, found that 7% of women reported non-partner rape. Both these studies provide insight into the problem, but they don’t represent the whole country. They can only tell us about the situation in a certain province at a particular time. 

“The only national estimate available is from 1998. Then South Africa’s Demographic and Health Survey found that 4.4% of women aged 15 to 49 had been forced to have sex in their lifetime. But this figure is over 20 years old and was only for a portion of the female population.”

Gauteng recorded 10 116 sexual offence cases in 2018. On September 11 2018, Police Minister Bheki Cele released crime statistics in Parliament for the year. Rape topped the list of sexual offences. The police recorded 40 035 cases of rape across South Africa, with an average of 110 incidents of reported rape each day.

In a 2014 policy brief titled Rape and Other Forms of Sexual Violence in South Africa, Lisa Vetten, a researcher who has been focusing on violence against women for more than 20 years, wrote that although the South African Police Service provides figures on sexual violence once a year, workplaces, as well as educational institutions, are under no obligation to report on their disciplinary proceedings. “As a result, some cases of sexual victimisation will be hidden. Very little research has been undertaken to explore the gaps,” she wrote.

Vetten added that police data under-reports the extent of sexual violence and fails to provide information about the context in which specific forms of rape take place. She noted that there are different factors that may affect the reporting of sexual violence. Some victims opt not to report a sexual offence because they fear the legal process, which can entail being subjected to rudeness and poor treatment by the police or being accused of lying, among other reasons.

Police records reveal that more than 100 women are raped each day in South Africa. (Photo: AFP/Marco Longari)

In a May 2019 Mail & Guardian article Survivors of gender-based violence fight to be heard, psychologist Megan Jones said research shows an indisputable link between survivors of gender-based violence and mental health issues.

“Concerns arising from gender-based violence include mood disorders, for example: depression, anxiety disorders, substance-use disorders, personality disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidality,” she explained. “Some studies have found that victims of sexual assault per se are more likely to develop a psychiatric disorder than victims of other forms of gender-based violence.”

Jones said that children who grow up in households where gender-based violence is a norm might normalise that behaviour later in life, either as a perpetrator or a victim.

Starting at school with zero-tolerance

Speaking at a media briefing in KwaMashu in January on the state of readiness for the 2020 academic year, KwaZulu-Natal education MEC, Kwazi Mshengu, took the opportunity to call out GBV in schools, assuring learners that the department would root out all forms of abuse.

The KwaZulu-Natal department of education has adopted a zero-tolerance approach to GBV in schools. Mshengu said that any incident of sexual assault against pupils and teachers would be dealt with harshly and decisively. He pointed out that girls under the age of 16 cannot consent to any sexual activity, and that teachers who engage in sexual activities with pupils would be rooted out of the education system. “Whether the pupil is above the age of 16 [or not], as long as that person is a pupil and the teachers are found to have engaged in any form of sexual activity, even abuse, we are going to ensure that the teacher has no space in the education system,” he warned.

The 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence is an international campaign that kicks off on November 25 each year, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and runs until December 10, Human Rights Day. It is used as an organising strategy by individuals and organisations around the world to call for the prevention and elimination of violence against women and girls.

It adopts a different theme each year, with the most recent in 2019 being Generation Equality Stands Against Rape. No matter the changing names, times and contexts, women and girls universally continue to experience rape, sexual violence and abuse, in times of peace or war.

Its website states: “Rape is rooted in a complex set of patriarchal beliefs, power and control that continue to create a social environment in which sexual violence is pervasive and normalised. Exact numbers of rape and sexual assaults are notoriously difficult to confirm due to frequent latitude and impunity for perpetrators, stigma towards survivors and their subsequent silence.

“That is why, under the umbrella of UN Women’s Generation Equality campaign that marks the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, the UNiTE Campaign is calling on people from all walks of life to learn more and take a stand against the pervasive rape culture that surrounds us.”

In one recent campaign in South Africa, the head of the Phoenix Victim Friendly Centre, Devi Chitray, was reported as saying: “People often ask me why the 16 Days of Activism [initiative] highlights gender-based violence against women and children only at this time of the year and not the whole year. I always have to explain that statistics have shown that there are more recorded incidents at this time of the year than in any other period.”

Chitray said that in her time at the centre, she has had to deal with many social ills that vulnerable women and children face in the community. “We have had to deal with cases such as a victim losing a limb as a result of domestic violence, as well as the effects that an unstable home can have on children. During this period, we are all called to act against the pandemic of gender-based violence, which has become the scourge of our society.” 

World Bank Influence

In a 2019 World Bank report on violence against women and girls, which it described as a “global pandemic”, it estimated that gender-based violence (GBV) affects one in every three women in their lifetime. 

It listed the following shocking statistics:

• 35% of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence, or non-partner sexual violence

• Globally, 7% of women have been sexually assaulted by someone other than a partner

• Globally, as many as 38% of murders of women are committed by an intimate partner

• 200 million women have experienced female genital mutilation/cutting.

In response, in October 2016 the World Bank launched the GBV Task Force to strengthen the institution’s efforts to prevent and respond to risks of GBV, in particular sexual exploitation and abuse that may arise in World Bank-supported projects. 

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Eamonn Ryan
Guest Author

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