Lebogang Ramafoko is the Chief Executive Officer at Atlantic Fellows for Health Equity
What does 16 Days of Activism mean when woman are still dying?
November 25 is the start of what is known as 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence. It is an international campaign, starting on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. But what does this day mean for women across the world? Despite focused attention on gender-based violence (GBV) and many declarations signed by various governments, womxn* still experience violence in their lives.
The Covid-19 pandemic made the situation worse for womxn. Many were locked in homes with their abusers and reports of violence skyrocketed, making an already difficult pandemic even more so for women. Organisations such as Rise Up Against Gender Based Violence, based in Johannesburg, could not cope with the number of calls from women who needed to be evacuated from their homes to places of safety. Many had to leave their belongings behind and faced being outside of their communities and places of employment, so while they were removed from immediate harm, they still suffered much emotional and psychological trauma.
Many activists who work with GBV were not surprised by the shocking reports during the Covid-19 lockdown. The truth is, womxn live in fear all the time. We are afraid in our homes, we fear walking in our neighbourhoods, we fear exercising alone, taking public transport, expressing our views on social media and speaking out against injustice in schools, places of worship and workplaces. Simply put, womxn live in fear. Even when not in imminent danger, the lives of womxn are designed to avoid violence. Womxn generally think carefully about mundane activities such as taking a walk or using public transport, because each and every one of these activities may put their lives at risk.
Thinking about these seemingly insurmountable challenges that still exist makes it easy to throw one’s hands in the air and give up. We will be forgiven for believing that all that governments do is pay lip service to a pandemic that they have long failed to eradicate. I have personally been cynical of the events that normally take place around this time. If it was not for Covid-19, there would have been event after event organised with caterers and event organisers laughing all the way to the bank, after putting together yet another event where politicians come, sit in the VIP area, give their written speech and go back to business as usual.
But can we afford to give up? Can we afford to keep silent at the face of such injustice? Firstly, while we are justified to lament the failure of government to deal with GBV, we cannot overlook the efforts of many community-based organisations that fight this scourge on a daily basis. Without much financial support, they responded to the challenges of Covid-19 and provided support where it was needed. For example, when government food parcels did not reach people, they organised donations and started soup kitchens to feed the needy. Many of the people they fed were womxn and children who relied on the informal economy to feed themselves. With street vendors, domestic workers and informal traders not being able to work, many faced hunger and abuse in their homes. These food kitchens, run by volunteers, became a lifeline for many families in poorer communities.
So, instead of giving up, I wish to dedicate the 2020 16 Days of Activism to all community activists who work tirelessly to support all survivors of gender-based violence. I dedicate these 16 days to activists who speak out against GBV, some less publicly than others, even though the pushback from those accused of abusing women is real and violent. I especially dedicate it to women who have spoken out about their experiences of abuse against powerful men, even when they are imprisoned by a criminal justice system that is quick to act when a man claims to be falsely accused, but so slow when women report abuse. Some of these women have not only been arrested but have had strangers pry into their lives, casting aspersions on their characters because they dared speak out against “heroes and faves”.
My strength is renewed by the many voices of women, especially younger women, who call out patriarchy and question its double standards. I am strengthened by many who occupy various spaces and are unapologetically and explicitly feminist. It gives me joy to see the spaces that they have created for themselves and others, spaces to learn, unlearn and care for self and each other. These womxn are claiming their bodies, their sex, their stories and are speaking up about their vulnerabilities and supporting each other in what can be a very lonely and dangerous struggle.
To all womxn who dare speak out, to those who believe those who speak out, to those who take on powerful “untouchable” men, to those who continue doing their own healing work, I salute you. Our collective voices will not be silenced. — Lebogang Ramafoko
* This spelling is used as an alternative spelling, to avoid the suggestion of sexism perceived in the sequences m-a-n and m-e-n, and to be inclusive of trans and nonbinary women across the globe
Poor, black women are the face of this health inequity
When we speak of the Tekano Fellowship programme as a leadership development programme for health equity, we fully understand that ill health is structurally and socially determined. We are critically cognisant that South Africa is recognised as having one of the highest rates of inequality in the world. We recognise that tackling deep inequalities requires an express recognition of the intersections of class, race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression and nationality. And in embodying a feminist ethos we must ask a number of critical questions. Today we are asking, how we can strengthen the capacity of leaders for social change and reimagine health, inequality and social systems, without considering gender-based violence (GBV)? How do we understand and tackle inequality when not challenging the gendered power inequities that give rise to GBV?
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), South Africa has one of the highest rates of violence inflicted on women and girls in the world. A 2014 report by KPMG takes this statistic further in pointing out that GBV and violence against women in particular “is one of the most expensive public health problems globally and has a fundamental impact on economic growth, which can span several generations”. Poor black women are the face of this health inequity.
While many a study has been concluded and far more news articles written, there is currently no comprehensive study on the impact and costs of GBV. It is widely accepted that these studies can never represent a holistic picture for two primary reasons — the highly conservative nature of research methodologies, and, perhaps more significantly, the chronic and complex levels of underreporting. However, even with poor methodologies and excessive levels of underreporting, the statistics remain grim. And it goes without saying that GBV contributes significantly to the disease burden in our country.
Covid-19 adds to this pot. Like with other socioeconomic inequities, Covid-19 amplified the impact and resultant responsibilities on women, particularly those in precarious jobs, single parent households, frontline workers, the myriads engaged in the double burden of unpaid care work and those in abusive relationships. While there were questionable reports that there was a reduction in GBV during the national lockdown, 2 300 GBV cases were reported in the first week of lockdown alone. A July 2020 survey by the Foundation for Human Rights indicated that their community advice offices reported a 54% increase in GBV cases during lockdown across all provinces. But, as with other similar studies, they too cautioned about underreporting; this time, they attributed underreporting to restrictions on movement created by the lockdown.
The cases of GBV escalated following the opening of alcohol outlets at the end of the level 5 lockdown. Add to this the exacerbated chronic psychological distress women experience not only under lockdown, but as survivors of GBV and as our own research revealed, the less widely-reported violence women experience by simply being black women at the bottom of South Africa’s socioeconomic hierarchy, and therefore being “particularly vulnerable to job losses, lost income and an inability to access UIF funds”. — Crystal Dicks
GBV is real
- 51% of women in SA say they’ve experienced GBV, with 76% of men saying they’ve perpetrated GBV at one stage in their lives (2010 Gauteng sample). A similar study revealed that one in five women report that they have experienced violence at the hands of a partner.
- In 2019/20, 53 293 sexual offences were reported, an average of 146 per day, up from 52 420 in 2018/19. Most of these were cases of rape. Of this the police recorded 42 289 rapes in 2019/20, up from 41 583 in 2018/19, an average of 116 rapes each day (SAPS Crime Stats).
- In 2019/20, a total of 2 695 women were murdered in South Africa. This means a woman is murdered every three hours.
- Femicide is five times higher in South Africa than the global average, with South Africa having the fourth-highest female interpersonal violence death rate out of the 183 countries listed by the WHO in 2016.
- At the start of level 3 lockdown, 21 women and children were murdered in two weeks, leading the president to cite “…two devastating epidemics: Covid-19 and GBV”.
The earlier cited KPMG report, using a conservative estimate of a GBV prevalence rate of just 20% — and by its own account a partial estimate of the true costs — still manages to estimate that GBV costs South Africa between R28.4-billion and R42.4-billion per year, which amounts to 0.9% to 1.3% of our GDP annually. To give this some context, this is equivalent to employing an additional 200 000 primary school teachers for a year, or providing National Health Insurance to a quarter of the South African population.
The statistics and figures exclude the vast amount of incidents that go unreported, as well as the incident of violence that are not “overt” or those considered “violent”, and the normalised and pervasive gendered violence and discrimination experienced daily, particularly by women and members of the LGBTI+ community, not to mention the privileges and impunity enjoyed by perpetrators and the fear that their actions set off.
GBV perpetuates and reinforces gender inequality, impeding the contributions women and girls can make to social change and health equity. No leadership development fellowship on health equity in South Africa will be complete without studying the global and local literature, normalisation and pervasiveness of GBV and in doing so centering questions of power, privilege and positionality.
This is particularly important, as:
- Violence in women’s lives ranks higher than smoking, obesity or high blood pressure as a contributor to death, disability and illness;
- There are significant links between GBV and a range of other sexual and reproductive health problems, including sexually transmitted disease, forced and unwanted pregnancy, unsafe abortions, traumatic fistula, maternal morbidity and mortality, adverse pregnancy outcomes and even death;
- There is a significant association between perceived or actual HIV-risk and higher levels of GBV. UNAIDS points out that women who have been physically or sexually abused are 50% more likely to acquire HIV in some regions of the world;
- The WHO indicates that women who have been physically or sexually abused are 16% more likely to have a low-birth-weight baby, and they are twice as likely to have an abortion;
- Evidence from India has established a link between GBV and chronic malnutrition;
- Female victims of violence exhibit risk-taking behavior, such as unhealthy feeding habits, substance abuse, alcoholism and suicidal tendencies; and
- Female victims of violence experience psychological distress and challenges with mental health.
Reimagining the dynamics of health inequity and engaging community actions for improving health equity necessitates building community, equality and care. This must not only be an ideal, but will be mirrored in the fellowship. Fellows with successful social change initiatives will look at how GBV prevents women from leading healthy and productive lives. We welcome fellows who are able to harness catalytic communities against GBV and we commit to ensuring that GBV forms a critical component of the fellowship curriculum. Not doing so would be doing a grave injustice to advancing health equity in South Africa.
GBV: Breaking the silence and raising awareness with faith-based women
The South African Police Service and Stats SA recently released their quarterly crime statistics report for the second quarter of the 2020/21 period. This report indicated that although crime is still on the rise in South Africa, there has been some changes from the first quarter to the second quarter, which was mostly during the lockdown period.
We know that South Africa is ranked as the rape capital in the world; we also know that with three to nine women raped every day, this a country that is not considered safe for women. A woman is murdered every three to four hours, and half of those murders are at the hands of an intimate partner, either through femicide or partner violence.
Gender-based violence (GBV) is not only a crime or public health issue, it is also a financial burden, with a report released by KPMG in 2017 showcasing its economic impact. According to the report: “Based on prevalence rates of, between 20% and 30% of women experiencing gender-based violence within a given year, this study estimated that the economic impact of that violence is between at least R28.4-billion and R42.4-billion for the year 2012/2013, representing 0.9% and 1.3% of GDP respectively.”. This makes GBV one of the most expensive public health burdens, not only for the department of health but also for the department of justice and finance.
The government of South Africa is attempting to respond to this scourge through the introduction of various policies such as the National Strategic Plan that President Cyril Ramaphosa has committed to, as well as new GBV bills (the Criminal and Related Matters Bill, the Domestic Violence Amendment Bill and the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters Amendment Bill) introduced by the Department of Justice to parliament. As much as government is putting all these measures forward, there is also room for other social stakeholders to play their part in working together with government to respond to this scourge.
Faith and religion play a leading role in many South Africans’ lives, particularly women; more than 60% of all practicing Christians are women. The church is one of the most important pillars of society — in South Africa particularly, the church has a long activism history. It played a vital role in advocating for freedom during apartheid, and was at the forefront of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, enabling South Africa to be the only country in Africa that transitioned from an oppressive system without civil war breaking out. The church also played a key role during the HIV epidemic, rolling out treatment when the government was still in denial.
However, with GBV, the church seems to be silent and is not taking the lead in condemning this scourge. GBV is documented as one of the main factors that increase women’s vulnerability to HIV infection in South Africa. Women who have experienced or are in abusive relationships are more likely than their counterparts to have HIV. The gender-power dynamics that are unfavorable for women in those relations explain the link to HIV vulnerability, which occurs mainly through unprotected sex and multiple concurrent partners.
The question of the church’s role in its response to GBV is vital, as it affects both women and children. The CRL Rights Commission has over the past couple of years been receiving cases of sexual offenses within faith institutions. There was the famous case of the Timothy Omotoso trial, where a young woman stood up in 2018 at one of the Methodist church branches and accused one of the church leaders of sexual harassment. She was silenced not just by church leaders, but church women as well.
As a result of all these cases and accusations, a research project and workshop were commissioned as part of the Tekano Atlantic Fellowship Advocacy Project for Cohort ll, to explore the ways in which faith-based women perceive the effect of their belief systems and responses to certain aspects of GBV.
The purpose of the In Her Shoes Workshop is for women to share their experiences with regard to their awareness, experience and understanding of GBV, and break the silence around this topic. The WITSIE research team based within the department of psychology at the University of the Witwatersrand has been working in partnership with the GBV Prevention Network over the years to help disseminate such workshops and interventions in the sub-Saharan region to raise awareness about gender-based violence. This tool was used to run a workshop with 13 women from the Methodist Young Women’s Manyano Gauteng region, with representatives from the various regions within Johannesburg.
— Andile Mthombeni
Everything you need to know about the three Gender-Based Violence Bills
As the oral submissions to Portfolio Committee on Justice and Correctional Services on three gender-based violence (GBV) Bills concluded in parliament at the end of October, experts and activists argued that the proposed amendments fall short of what the South African government wants to achieve through them: a safer and better society for women and children by putting an end, or at least decreasing, the rates at which they’re violated and killed in this country.
The state and rates of GBV continue to be a concern in South Africa. While women and activists have taken to the street countless of time to demand better laws, policies and proactive responses from governments, very little has happened to change the status quo. Over the past few years, the government has been put on the spotlight and often had to be pressured into taking bold steps to halt, or at least try to reduce, GBV and femicide. There was the Total Shutdown March in 2018, the GBV summit a year later, and eventually the establishment of the National Strategic Plan against GBV and femicide, which civil society organisations have been asking for, for decades.
And now more recently, President Cyril Ramaphosa introduced three new bills to Parliament as a response and attempt to tighten the laws on GBV.
Survivors have no faith in the legal system
Ramaphosa acknowledged the nationwide anger towards how the justice system continues to fail survivors and society at large, as many perpetrators are able to exploit the legal system. In his weekly newsletter, Ramaphosa acknowledged his commitment to finding resources to fund the fight against GBV as well as to review South Africa’s laws when it comes to GBV, including tightening up the process of granting bail to suspects and enforcing longer sentences for offenders.
“The sad reality is that many survivors of gender-based violence have lost faith in the criminal justice system. These Bills, once finalised, will help to restore the confidence of our country’s women that the law is indeed there to protect them,” he wrote.
The Bills, namely the National Register for Sex Offenders, Domestic Violence Amendment Bill and Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Bill, have been approved by cabinet and were open for public commentary until the end of September.
The draft laws tackle three main issues: challenges with obtaining protection orders, sub-standard bail conditions for suspects, and the police not taking domestic violence complaints seriously; the Bills will make it easier to obtain a protection order. But what do these amendments really mean, and how will they change the lives of women and girls across South Africa?
Activists and experts weigh in
Various civil society organisations pointed out the gaps and shortfalls in the proposed law reforms as they made submissions in parliament, stating that although the intentions of the amendments were well-meaning, some may do more harm than good. While the Domestic Violence Amendment Bill intends to make obtaining protection orders against acts of domestic violence simpler, by making the service available through electronic means, the protection of private information should be paramount.
“We commend the Portfolio Committee for recognising the need for expanding the abilities of victims and survivors to apply for protection orders online, and we welcome the acknowledgement that the integrity of the integrated electronic repository is paramount. However, further safeguards are necessary to ensure that sensitive and personal data is protected. We note with concern that further harm and violence may occur if this information is not appropriately secured and protected,” Research ICT Africa, Association for Progressive Communications and members of the Feministing While Africa Network said in a joint submission.
The Children’s Institute emphasised that the definition of “domestic violence” in the Domestic Violence Bill should be specific and physical abuse should include corporal punishment. Additionally, the institute also recommended that stalking shouldn’t be removed from the Bill, because stalking can be part of an act of domestic violence against an intimate partner, and removing stalking from the Domestic Violence Act and completely placing it under the Protection from Harassment Act 17 of 2011 shows “a failure to acknowledge the various forms domestic violence can take and how it occurs on a continuum”. Sonke Gender Justice also recommended that stalking be left in the Act, because the removal goes against a victim-centred approach, as recommended in the National Strategic Plan on Gender-Based Violence and Femicide.
Sex Offenders Register a burning issue
The Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Bill aims to strengthen the bail conditions for sexual offenders and for a warrant of arrest to no longer be compulsory for law enforcement to take when a sex crime is committed. The draft law would also increase minimum sentencing and stricter conditions for parole. But activists and experts argue that harsher sentencing is not a deterrent for perpetrators, and women and girls can still be harmed.
The most contentious part of the proposed amendment is making the National Register of Sex Offenders public, but experts have raised concerns about how under-populated and poorly managed the list is.
The National Register for Sex Offenders was established to protect children and mentally disabled people by recording the names of those found guilty of sexual offences against children and mentally disabled people. Currently, it is not publicly available, but employers in the public or private sectors such as schools and hospitals have the right to check that a person being hired is fit to work with children or mentally disabled people. When a person is found guilty of a sexual offence against a child or mentally disabled person, their name is added onto the register.
According to the Commission of Gender Equity, the register contained close to 29 000 names — but only six officials are responsible for maintaining it. The justice department has also admitted that there are still operational challenges with the register, despite the fact that it has existed for 20 years. While there’s a public petition with over 50 000 petitions to make the register public, the lack of maintenance or efficient functionality is a recurring criticism of the register. Many experts and activists have suggested alternatives to making the list, such as using the South African Police Service (SAPS) criminal records system, which will be more comprehensive and also better maintained.
“Firstly, while it is important to protect children from sexual predators, there may be persons who have committed equally serious crimes that should disqualify them from working with children and other vulnerable groups,” said the Children’s Institute.
The complete database of all offences committed by all persons has proven to be reliable, because when a person is convicted their fingerprints are taken and are automatically sent through to the Criminal Record Centre for SAPS, argued the University of Pretoria’s law faculty.
Also, when you ask for your criminal records report (clearance certificate) from the SAPS, it is quite an efficient process, taking just a few weeks.
“[The] National Register of Sexual Offenders is not so reliable, because although the magistrate or judge must make an order for the inclusion of the details on [the register], a clerk has to send these details, and it appears that there is scope for information getting lost along the way.”
As the parliamentary committee deliberates on the critiques and recommendations made into the proposed law changes, experts and activists hope that a survivor-centric approach is taken. — Pontsho Pilane