South Africa’s rising rates of violence against women demand a unified approach

Violence against women is rife in South Africa. Reuters/Mike Hutchings

Violence against women is a serious problem worldwide. Data from 80 different countries show that 35% of all women have been physically or sexually abused by an intimate partner, or have experienced non-partner sexual violence.

These statistics are sometimes considered unreliable. But this is largely due to gross under-reporting, which actually compounds the problem.

While women across the globe fall victim to physical or sexual violence, African women are particularly vulnerable.

Given its prevalence on the continent, African governments have publicly condemned violence against women. The overwhelming majority have signed international conventions. These include the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Violence Against Women and the protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa.

The African Union declared 2015 as the year of women’s empowerment and emancipation. At a recent session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, African leaders raised the issue of violence against women and gender-based violence.

Unfortunately, despite these political measures, violence against women is not decreasing.

Gender violence in South Africa

In South Africa, violence against women continues unabated without any serious consequences for the perpetrator. South Africa is infamous for horrendous gender-based crimes especially of a sexual nature, despite having some of the most progressive legislation in Africa. Its Domestic Violence Act has one of the broadest definitions of violence against women.

The South African government has taken other steps. It has:

  • Ratified the convention on violence against women,

  • introduced a 365 Days national action plan to end gender violence,

  • instituted a National Council against gender-based Violence, and

  • Prioritised various measures for the promotion and empowerment of women, such as setting up a special government department.

But the violence against women in the country continues unabated. Studies still report that 40% - 50% of women have experienced intimate partner violence. On top of this incidents of violence against women are severely under-reported, as is violence in general. The approximately 55,000 rapes reported annually are estimated to be nine times lower than the actual number.

This shows that violence against women is firmly entrenched in South Africa, and it does not appear to be changing. Rather, violence has become an accepted way to assert and reassert masculinity and dominance.

Power relations and violence

There is a direct relationship between violence against women and power. Society regularly favours men at the cost of women, constructing men as more powerful than women. Within this social system – patriarchy – gender inequality is supported, facilitated and enforced. This is despite gendered constructs of men and women having the potential to generate violence.

Power is intimately linked to the potential for violence. One way of enacting masculinity is through violence. Male violence is a way to assert the status of a man, male identity and men as a group. It is often resorted to when more acceptable, traditional displays of masculinity – such as steady employment and a good salary – are unavailable.

The question of funding

Critics argue that the government’s inability to enforce laws and put perpetrators behind bars is linked to its unwillingness to devote significant money to the issue. Calculating the full cost of violence against women shows its heavy financial impact. Accounting firm KPMG found that gender-based violence cost between 0.9% and 1.3% of South Africa’s GDP in 2012-13.

Civil society argues that allocating enough financial resources for comprehensive prevention would be cheaper than responding to the consequences. But where should the money be sourced from and where should it go?

Many civil society organisations have become over-reliant on government funding for their programming. This is particularly the case because government has outsourced much of its violence against women service responses. Such reliance on government inhibits the ability of civil society organisations to be critical of the same government.

The current international economic climate has also made it increasingly challenging to source national or international funding. The competition between organisations to secure the existing funding has inhibited joint and comprehensive responses from the gender-focused sector of civil society.

Civil society organisations differ on the importance of and need to work with men and engage on the issue of masculinities. Some feel all funding and effort should be focused solely on women. Others argue that violence against women cannot be eradicated without working with men. These fundamental differences in how violence against women is understood and how prevention and care is rolled out has meant that there is no united civil society response and voice.

United approach is missing

South Africa is emblematic of why violence against women responses on the continent are failing. While good measures are being rolled out, it lacks a united, comprehensive, multi-disciplinary response. Curbing violence against women requires a response from government and civil society at both policy and grassroots levels.

Only government can provide and enforce the legislation that will send a strong message that these acts are unacceptable. It must also help change cultural and religious beliefs and practices. Reforming gender-violent cultural and religious beliefs will be extremely challenging - almost impossible - if public leaders continue to enforce stereotypical beliefs and practices.

For its part, civil society is in a position to work with people in transforming misguided cultural and religious beliefs and practices. It also has a duty to see to it that legislation and policies on violence against women are enforced. To turn the tide it has to help improve people’s understanding of the relevant laws and policies and restore their trust in government institutions.

Civil society also has to publicly condemn government leaders who speak and act in ways that enforce gender inequality and women’s marginalisation.

Addressing violence against women on the continent requires a strong, united, multi-level response from both government and civil society. As yet, this is not happening. Women continue to suffer as a result.