Gender-Based Violence Battle
International Women’s Day on 8 March is a global celebration of women’s achievements. It also recognises the persistent challenges of achieving gender equality. Reflecting on the gender-based violence (GBV) situation in South Africa and the strides made on the policy front has brought me to this realisation: we all know someone who is a victim of GBV. That’s how pervasive GBV has become in our society.
Our religious institutions and workplaces are no strangers to GBV survivors who are dealing with their experiences in their own way, often in silence without any outward indication of what they are going through. Our homes – the spaces meant to be havens and places of refuge for women – are instead warzones where a woman’s body is the canvas for this war and violence.
If laws were a panacea for solving all societal ills and problems, then GBV in South Africa would be a thing of the past. The long list of laws in South Africa enacted and amended from time to time to address GBV have proved inadequate on their own to curb the scourge. In a country with the most progressive and responsive laws to sexual violence, GBV and femicide, it is evident that winning the war against GBV will require an overhaul of systemic and deeply entrenched norms, beliefs and attitudes towards women in particular and violence more broadly.
A grim picture
Public reports and statistics paint a grim picture for women in South Africa. The country is dubbed the rape capital of the world. Crime statistics for July to September 2021 show that 9 556 people were raped, and according to the October to December 2021 statistics, 11 273 women were raped in South Africa. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 12.1 in every 100 000 women are victims of femicide in South Africa each year – this is five times higher than the global average of 2.6. The female interpersonal violence death rate is also pegged at fourth highest out of 183 countries listed in the 2016 WHO report.
As far back as 2017, our report titled “Violence against Women in South Africa: A Country in Crisis” highlighted that GBV in South Africa had reached crisis proportions and needed multisectoral responses to curb its impacts, sentiments that were echoed by President Cyril Ramaphosa during the November 2018 Presidential Summit on Gender-based Violence and Femicide. The National Strategic Plan on Gender-based Violence and Femicide starts us off on this multisectoral response to GBV. However, the biggest gap lies in transforming mindsets, behaviour learned and practised over time, and attitudes towards women and violence.
GBV is a product and an outcome of deeply entrenched cultural and patriarchal beliefs in society. It does not occur in a vacuum; it is systemic and institutionalised. Violence, like a language is learnt and can be “spoken”. The GBV language is disproportionately spoken on the body of a woman. Like any other language, it can be transmitted, normalised and passed down to the next generation. This is evident when the screams of a woman in the middle of the night do not draw a crowd to her doorstep to help trigger a 10111 call to the police to report a possible domestic violence incident.
When support systems fail
Women have to jump through hoops to report GBV. From mustering enough courage to leave the home for the nearest police station to overcoming their fear of what reporting the incident will mean for them if the abuser is the breadwinner. From the uber driver who an abused woman e-hails to ferry her to the police station to report GBV, to the police officer at the police station who attends to her, and the pastor to whom she reports her abuse, there is no shortage of men appealing to her to forgive her partner, go back home and solve it, begging her not to report him. Our society is also not short of in-laws and parents who turn a blind eye to the abuse in the name of “what will people say when you leave”? Our communities are also full of women who further entrench the abusive and violent behaviour of men, blaming women for “asking for it”, judging them instead of helping them. Our very support systems in families, communities and society require this transformation if we are to reduce GBV in South Africa.
Laws written to address GBV are at most an abstract, whose passing by parliament and signing by the president remains relatively unknown by the majority of our community members. The existence of laws has not translated to increased reporting of GBV cases at police stations to kick-start the criminal justice process. It is estimated that only one in nine cases of violence against women are actually reported. When families, communities and institutions are constantly dictating that a woman must “endure” and persevere against abuse and violence, or that her behaviour must have caused her partner to “lose it”, then we still have a long way to go in reducing the scourge of GBV in our homes, communities and society. In 2022, we cannot afford as women to be told that “emshadweni kuyabekezelwa” or that “uma ekushaya kusho uyakuthanda”.
Dig deep to break the pattern
If we are to turn the tide against GBV, our focus and investment must prioritise what is believed and what prevails as norms towards women and violence. This starts with probing the motivations, root causes and key drivers of such toxic and abusive belief systems to challenge them and offer a counter-narrative. It calls for us to do the heavy lifting work of hearing and listening, sifting through these beliefs to separate fact from myth, and accompanying communities and individuals, especially men, on a journey of unlearning those entrenched faulty belief systems and learning new positive ones that render spaces safe for women. Transformation will also require that we reach out to women survivors of GBV and start peeling off the layers of their trauma and the negative belief systems they harbour about themselves, accompanying them on a journey of healing through counselling services, and reinforcing their positive belief systems that say “you matter; it was not your fault; you are special; you did not deserve what happened to you; it was wrong, it was criminal; you deserve better”.