South Africa’s Secondary Pandemic: A Crisis of Gender Based Violence

South Africa’s Secondary Pandemic: A Crisis of Gender Based Violence

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In South Africa, sometimes known as the ‘destination of femicide’, more than 2,700 women have been murdered as result of gender-based violence (GBV) since 2000. Although grassroots organisations have persistently campaigned to end GBV, many women in South Africa continue to suffer abuse. Now, South Africa’s GBV problem is worsening, as lockdown measures have trapped women inside with their abusers.

Locked In

For the first time since March, when the South African government  introduced one of the world’s longest and strictest lockdowns in response to the first detected cases of coronavirus, the devastating impact of lockdown on the already severe gender-based violence issue (GBV) has been exposed. The government’s GBV and Feminicide Command Centre, a call centre to support victims of GBV, recorded more than 120,000 victims in the first three weeks of the lockdown. Just weeks later in Pretoria, a similar call centre was receiving up to 1,000 calls a day from women and children who were confined to abusive homes seeking urgent help. Prior to the pandemic, femicide in South Africa was already five times higher than the global average and the female interpersonal violence death rate was the fourth-highest out of the 183 countries listed by the World Health Organisation in 2016. Evidence has now emerged that suggests cases of violence against women are increasing. In 2019-2020, there was an average increase of 146 sexual offences and 116 specifically rape cases per day, predominantly rape, compared to the same period between 2018-2019. 

Researchers from the Wits School of Governance suggest that the lockdown measures are likely to be the cause of this increase in GBV, as women were forced to stay home and left vulnerable to domestic abuse. In addition, the lockdown has prevented access to civil service groups dedicated to supporting victims of GBV. Yet, victims already faced issues seeking support and justice before the pandemic. In South Africa, reports of GBV are often dismissed by the police who perceive the issue as a private matter for families, rather than a criminal matter for the courts. There is also stigma associated with sexual violence. Together, these factors contribute to the underreporting of GBV cases.

A Secondary Pandemic

Although South Africa’s experience with GBV is not unique, the extent and prevalence of the issue, compounded by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, has triggered a ‘secondary pandemic’ in the country marred by rising femincide rates and GBV. Unlike Covid-19 however, GBV is spread through social and political conditions that undermine the ability of women and girls to escape from abuse. 

Signs of public backlash suggest the rise of GBV might meet significant resistance should it continue to escalate. For example, when the body of Tshegofasto Pule, a 28-year old woman from Johannesburg, was found in the city’s West Rand district two years ago, thousands came out to protest against the government’s ineffectual approach to GBV. The perpetrators, Pule’s boyfriend and another man, were only charged in February 2021, unfortunately reflecting the slow response of South Africa’s justice system to many cases of this nature.

Although President Ramaphosa pledged $75 million to strengthen the criminal justice system and provide better care for victims of GBV, many women and children continue to suffer on a daily basis. However, the additional funding has failed to curb the exponential rise in cases of abuse and rape. According to a recent study by Amnesty International, there is public outrage about the institutional failures to deliver justice for GBV victims, given that South Africa’s Domestic Violence Act of 1998 explicitly states that victims may lay criminal complaints against offenders. Furthermore, funding intended for refuge centres for victims of GBV has either not been sufficient or not reached the centres who were due to receive it. By April 2020, many domestic violence shelters had already reached capacity even though the scale of the GBV crisis was yet to peak.  

Experts say that domestic violence in South Africa is culturally deep-rooted and can be traced to the Apartheid era. Grassroots movements including Black Womxn Caucus and Women and Men Against Child Abuse have repeatedly urged the government to do more to ensure that the swift prosecution of cases. However, there are fears that the legislation may not be enough alone to decrease the numbers of cases linked to gender-based violence in the country. These same movements are, in addition, suggesting that changes in attitudes and approaches to gender will be just as important as legislative changes. 

Worryingly, South Africa’s recent emergence from lockdown in February 2021 came with growing concerns that another lockdown will be necessary given the slow roll-out of the Covid-19 vaccine. South Africa’s GBV crisis could have global implications for women’s rights. In 2020, we celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, one of the cornerstone international agreements for gender equality. South Africa’s commitments from the declaration had paved the way for notable progress, but as we move towards the Sustainable Development Goals’ deadline in 2030, it remains uncertain how the unfolding GBV crisis in South Africa will hamper efforts to meet the SDG Goals and their respective targets in less than 10 years time. 

Final Remarks

In the month of International Women’s Day, when we highlight the ongoing need for governments and institutions to commit resources to advance women’s rights, South Africa’s gender crisis is a stark reminder of the persisting barriers to gender equality and rights faced by many women around the world. Unfortunately, South Africa’s situation is far from unique. Globally, calls to helplines have increased five-fold in some countries as rates of reported intimate partner violence increase because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Restricted movement, social isolation, and economic insecurity are increasing women’s vulnerability to violence in the home around the world. In Africa though, the situation is particularly bleak. In Kenya, a twelve-year-old girl in Kenya was forced into marrying two men in the space of a month before being rescued by local authorities. 

As South Africa begins to rebuild following the Covid-19 pandemic, grassroots activists in the country are hoping to see a renewed commitment to tackling GBV. Ultimately, it remains to be seen whether or not the government will push through any further plans of action aimed at reducing instances of GBV within the country. 2021 could prove to be a decisive year for South Africa as it emerges from the Covid-19 pandemic as well as an ongoing women’s rights crisis.

Categories: Africa, Politics, South Africa

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