On paper, women in South Africa ought to enjoy the highest status globally. But this has not translated into fundamental freedoms of dignity, safety and security in practice.
Judged against global gender benchmarks, South African women appear to have surpassed their expectations in terms of important indicators. These include:
solid representation and leadership in state decision-making structures;
extensive legal and constitutional mechanisms protecting their rights;
ground breaking laws safeguarding their interests; and
numerous civil society lobby groups.
Statistics tell a chilling story
This impressive national gender machinery belies the realities of most women, especially black women. These are degradation, grinding poverty and extreme violence. The majority of the South African population who live under the poverty line is black and female.
South Africa’s violence against women ranks as one of the worst in the world. As much as 40% to 50% of women in the country have suffered intimate partner violence.
Women are particularly vulnerable because of their lower socioeconomic status. They have fewer options and resources to escape domestic violence and seek justice.
South Africa does not have accurate statistics of gender-based violence because there are no reliable government databases. Sexual violence is under-reported. The Medical Research Council estimates that three women are killed by an intimate partner per day. Even this is likely to be an under-estimate, as 18% of killers were not identified.
The report also estimated that only one in nine rapes were reported to the police. It also found that one in four men admitted to raping a woman.
South Africa’s Gender Statistics Report revealed that South African women are seriously disadvantaged than men. They are still less likely to be able to read. They are also less likely to have a tertiary education and they experience far higher unemployment.
When sexism meets racism
As sexism and racism intersect, black women bear the brunt of humiliation, deprivation and discrimination. This speaks to a deep disconnect between the political elites, women who have risen to power in government, and ordinary South African women.
The responses by the most powerful women’s lobby in the country to key gender controversies – to support the government – is telling. It gives credence to the view that women perpetuate and sustain male dominance in exchange for power in patriarchal power structures.
Gender equality is up against a powerful enemy in societies with strong patriarchal traditions, where women, of all races and cultures have been oppressed, exploited and kept in positions of subservience for generations. Patriarchy, premised on women’s humiliation and subjugation, is resilient and adapts to changing social and political contexts, aided and abetted by complicity and silence.
Understanding violence against women
Violence does not arise in a vacuum. It is influenced by a complex array of interrelated factors such as:
stagnant economic growth;
high rates of unemployment; and
low levels of education.
The violence against women and girls is often sexual, involving debasement and even torture. This cannot easily be explained by patriarchal dominance and control ideology or socioeconomic conditions, including poverty, unemployment and substance abuse. When rape becomes an act of sexual savagery, it speaks of rape as a weapon of war – in this case, the “war” on South African women.
Research points to a neo-patriarchal backlash globally because progress in gender equality usually provokes resistance. A study into sexism in 18 countries showed particularly interesting scores for South Africa.
It showed South African men and women endorse ambivalent sexism. This means the women they feel the most positive about are those in roles which serve men’s needs. The roles included those of “cherished” wives and sexual partners. They felt the empowerment of women had gone too far. They also showed deep ambivalence about the changes towards gender equity.
Men are threatened by women’s empowerment and the allocation of state resources to address gender imbalances that they perceive comes at their expense. This often involves a backlash against women in an attempt to re-establish their masculinity and dominance. Amnesty International observes that there is a vicious global backlash 20 years after the adoption of the Beijing Declaration in 1995, which promised to protect and promote women’s rights around the world.
Sexual assault is highest in countries where the status of women is lowest.
Rape in South Africa reflects a savage global trend which points to the act of rape itself not being enough for the perpetrator. Victims also have to be cruelly and publicly tortured (humiliated) before they die, as seen in the gang rape and dehumanising death of teenager Anene Booysen in 2013.
Making sense of extreme brutality
Deep humiliation is part of the South African DNA and is historically fuelled by the symbiotic ideologies of apartheid (racism) and patriarchy (sexism). This symbiosis involved systemic, institutionalised violence which devalues, demeans and debases whole groups of people and renders them inferior.
This may provide insight into the extreme levels of gender-based violence, especially sexual violence, currently experienced. Black men, emasculated and humiliated under apartheid, resisted race oppression which also involved defending their masculinity. Violence and masculinity are linked. In a country like South Africa much of the violence is perpetrated by black men.
It needs to be emphasised that gender-based violence globally has nothing to do with race per se. Violence is not caused by skin colour, but rather in South Africa is the effect of deep-rooted historical, social and psychological factors.
Displaced anger and aggression towards women emanates from a deep need to re-assert masculinity, status and power. Further humiliation in the current climate at the perceived loss of power posed by the advancement of women’s rights forments and fuels the neo-patriarchal backlash. This is also reflected in global patterns and trends with devastating consequences for South Africa.