/ 18 April 2022

Criminalising gender-based violence is not enough

Gender Based Violence Protesters March Outside Parliament In Cape Town In South Africa
Despite strong legislation, South Africa is failing to address its unacceptable rates of woman abuse. (Nardus Engelbrecht/Gallo Images via Getty Images)

Every day, socioeconomic challenges such as poverty, inequality, crime and violence have devastating effects on our society, both economically and on the quality of life and dignity afforded to those individuals most affected by them. 

Around the world, minority groups continue to bear the brunt of such socioeconomic issues, and this is most grave when it comes to experiences of violence and abuse. In the US, despite making up only 20.3% of the population, African American women are subjected to domestic abuse at a rate 35% higher than white women in the country. And, in the UK, where only 3.5% of the population is black, black women disproportionately experience abuse with 50% of black and minority ethnic women having experienced abuse from multiple perpetrators. This is often the case because minorities are usually the most vulnerable and most marginalised groups in society. 

In South Africa where approximately 81% of the population is black and 51.2% is female, you might think that black women don’t face the same vulnerability to violence as they do in the rest of the world. Unfortunately, this is not the case. As a result of a legacy of economic vulnerability and violence perpetuated by discriminatory and prejudiced structures and institutions in the country’s history, black women in South Africa are still the most vulnerable to incidents of gender-based violence (GBV).

In 2020, President Cyril Ramaphosa declared GBV South Africa’s second pandemic and noted that it needed to be taken as seriously as the coronavirus. Already named the “rape capital of the world” by Interpol, South Africa continues to grapple with increasing rates of domestic abuse, sexual violence and femicide. During the pandemic, incidents of GBV increased exponentially due to many women having been confined to spaces with their perpetrators as a result of lockdowns and measures to restrict movement and curb the spread of the virus. 

Police Minister Bheki Cele recently announced that more than 9 500 cases of GBV and 13 000 cases of domestic violence were reported just between July and September 2021. Over the same period, 897 women were murdered (an increase of 7.7% compared to the same period in 2020), while sexual offence cases increased by 4.7% and incidents of rape rose by 7.1% compared to the second quarter of 2020.

These troubling statistics highlight our failures as a nation in protecting South African women, especially black and disabled women, and calls for an urgent and consolidated response to the crisis we are facing from all sectors of our society including government, corporates, communities, schools and universities. 

This year, Ramaphosa signed into law legislation aimed at strengthening efforts to end GBV in the country including the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Act Amendment Bill, the Criminal and Related Matters Amendment Bill, and the Domestic Violence Amendment Bill. 

However, it’s simply not enough to write up laws that criminalise violence against women. South Africa has some of the most sophisticated laws against discrimination and violence in the world as a result of a concerted effort to uphold human rights because of our past — and yet GBV continues at such a high rate in the country. This is largely because of a lack of enforcement and lack of resources at both a government and community level. 

Because there are many layers to GBV and socioeconomic issues such as teenage pregnancy and economic inequality are interlinked with GBV, addressing GBV is a complex endeavour. So, what can be done?

Promoting access to justice and enforcement

One of the biggest barriers to enforcement is underreporting, which limits our ability to wholly understand the magnitude of GBV in the country, weakens criminal deterrence, and enables such crimes to continue. According to the World Bank, only 7% of women who have experienced violence have reported it to a formal source such as the police, healthcare systems or social services. 

A number of factors influence whether a survivor of GBV will formally report an incident of violence, but the biggest one is the stigma that surrounds victims. Victims of GBV can often be victimised further within their own families and communities, can be subjected to discrimination or harsh treatment within their workplace, or even be violated at the place where they should feel safest — the police station. 

Providing support structures for survivors

We need to create and maintain environments that are safe for victims to report incidents of violence and abuse with empathy and care and without judgement and further harm.

According to a Statistics South Africa report, nearly 50% of GBV assaults are committed by someone close such as a friend or acquaintance (22%), spouse or intimate partner (15%), or a relative or household member (13%) — and only 29% are committed by a complete stranger. 

On top of this, young black girls from disadvantaged households who are the most vulnerable to GBV are often taken care of by family members or neighbours as their parents might travel far to get to work and might not be home for most of the day.

We need to play an active role in creating and reinforcing support structures for victims to come forward within our own communities without retaliation and where their voices can be heard and taken seriously.