/ 20 February 2021

Simple interventions could cut violence against women

October 23 2018 Residents In Silvertown, Town 2 Khayelitsha, C
Let there be light: The author contends that improving street lighting in Khayelitsha could help to lower crime levels and violence against women, as noted by the Khayelitsha commission of inquiry. Photo: David Harrison

There isn’t a day that I don’t wake up and wonder if I will hear about another devastating act of gender-based violence (GBV). The reality of living in South Africa is that it often feels as though it’s not a case of “if”, but “when”. Because it is coming: we all know that it is.

Of course, to interpret this as an indication that GBV receives its due coverage is inaccurate. In 2015, Gender Links, a Southern African women’s rights organisation, monitored more than 27 000 news items from television, radio and newspapers in 14 Southern African Development Community countries to assess the measure of representation and the portrayal of women. One of the main findings was that GBV and stories that mention GBV accounted for only 1% of topics covered, a three-percentage-point drop from the 4% recorded in 2010.

Whether 1% or 4%, it’s a troubling indication of a lack of representation — particularly when you take into account the recent data that indicates a woman is murdered every three hours in South Africa — which contributes itself to the poor coverage: journalists just don’t have the capacity to keep up. And, as readers, perhaps, neither do we.

If we aren’t waking to the news of another devastating loss of life, we wake up to inaccurate (and, sometimes, utterly stupid) comments from people who are in positions that should empower them to effectively do something about GBV.

Most recently, it’s Angie Motshekga, the department of basic education minister, who claimed that “educated men don’t rape” — a severely problematic assertion that insinuates uneducated men alone are responsible for our alarmingly high rates of GBV (which is simply untrue), as well as perpetuating harmful rape-culture tropes designed to make things more difficult for victims, particularly when it comes to reporting what’s happened to them.

To have someone in such a role (a role that could and should play a part in addressing GBV) speak so incorrectly about something that destroys lives on a daily basis, makes one wonder just how many more lives we will lose to GBV before our public servants give it the attention and energy it deserves?

Rather than focus on yet another failure by one of our public servants to talk knowledgeably about GBV, and the interventions we need, I want to focus on a few deceptively simple interventions that could effect real change — in no small part because they are grounded in actual research and data, meaning that they are real, actionable and, importantly, measurable. Dr Nechama Brodie discusses these extensively in her authoritative book on the subject, Femicide in South Africa, and I would highly recommend that every South African read it. 

To begin, it must be said (in contradiction to Herman Mashaba’s position) that the death penalty is not a solution. Politicians who wish to be seen as taking a firm stance on crime, tend to play fast and loose with the call to put criminals convicted of rape and murder to death. 

Although the rhetoric may appeal to the bloodlust of people desperate for change, it’s not justifiable. There is no evidence to suggest the death penalty would improve things. Research even indicates it could result in a decrease in convictions, which is the opposite of what we need. Attrition in the criminal justice system meant that just 8.6% of rape cases resulted in a conviction in 2017. Research also suggests that it’s not the severity of punishment, but the certainty of it, that deters criminals — which speaks to the need for an effective and productive police and judicial system.

An intervention that could actually help is the improvement of street lighting. The Khayelitsha commission of inquiry found that ineffective and inadequate lighting actually contributed to crime, while making the policing in those areas more challenging. In response to these findings, a Khayelitsha lighting plan was compiled and presented to the subcouncils for review and implementation. Those who govern, however, don’t appear to have been listening.

Khayelitsha has had less than half the amount to it by the City of Cape Town than deemed necessary in the lighting master plan. Moreover, the funds that have been allocated are for all lighting upgrades across Area East (which stretches from Mitchells Plain to Gordon’s Bay and so includes, but doesn’t focus on, Khayelitsha). This makes it seem as if the city isn’t even trying to implement its own plan to address its own findings.

Although this data is concerning, it does demonstrate the importance of the measurability of interventions, which can come in handy for holding the powers that be accountable — an accountability that is much needed when the result of poor implementation is the loss of human life.

Another important intervention is the suitable training and support of the police force to ensure they can properly investigate GBV (which would itself improve the ability of the legal system to duly process reported cases), while ensuring that interactions with victims don’t result in the victims being retraumatised — or worse.

Realistically, this would require the allocation of additional resources (which itself could improve the statistical data with which we’re able to inform resource allocation and policies). But, with the government’s decision in October to cut the police’s budget by R1.2-billion, this much-needed training and support doesn’t seem to be on its way. 

This is confirmed by analysts, who suggest the biggest losers of the budget cut will be specialised units and the procurement of specialised equipment — rendering our police force’s ability to provide the services we need, on the scale that we need them, a practical impossibility.

If we are to address GBV meaningfully, it is imperative we simultaneously address the prevalence of weapons in our society. To do so, we need to implement and enforce tighter gun controls. Data indicates that more than half of the women murdered in South Africa die at the hands of their intimate partners. Of these homicides, a staggering 82.7% are killed by firearm injury — and in three-quarters of those cases, the firearm is legally owned and licenced by the perpetrator.

In contradiction to claims made by the lowing political wannabes of elections past, as well as other avid gun lovers, we don’t actually need women to take up arms (the same arms that may well be used against them). 

What we need is more of what was done in the early 2000s, which saw the implementation of tighter restrictions under the Firearms Control Act. 

When reviewed in a retrospective time-trend study of firearm homicide in Cape Town, the removal of illegally owned firearms from circulation, stricter regulation of legally owned firearms, and stricter licensing requirements all contributed to a decline of firearm homicides by 15% year on year from 2003 to 2006.

I wrote this because we, the people of South Africa, deserve better when it comes to the manner in which our public servants talk and think about gender-based violence. I wrote this because we deserve attention paid to, and investments made into, real interventions that are motivated by research and data (which itself would increase the potential for them to yield real change).

I wrote this because it feels as if it is only a matter of time before we are moved to take to the streets again and mobilise in protest, united in our call for change, while suffocating under the weight of the question, “Am I next?”

By no means is this all it will take to eradicate GBV from our country. But if things are to change — and they must — then we need real, actionable, and measurable interventions. Not because there are elections looming. Not because another politician wants their time in the limelight. But because, when it comes to gender-based violence, it is a matter of life and death.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

This article has been edited (26 February 2021) to include a reference to Brodie’s work which Porteous failed to mention was used as part of her research.