Police Minister Bheki Cele announced new crime statistics while the figure of reported gender-based violence (GBV) statistics increased to an alarming rate of 2,320 complaints during just the first week of lockdown. This figure is 37% higher than the weekly average of the 87,290 domestic violence cases reported to police during 2019.
The national Gender-Based Violence Command Centre attested to the increase in numbers, saying they were experiencing triple the usual number of calls. This is a worrying trend that has been identified and reported globally, in China, Tunisia, Northern Ireland and France.
As a woman, looking at these figures and contextualising them according to our lockdown, it is difficult to share the minister’s hopeful sentiments knowing the increased likelihood of GBV during this time.
Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng, a commissioner at the Commission for Gender Equality (CGE), said “a lot of the drivers and structural issues that lead to violence unfortunately are heightened in this time of lockdown”. To this end she emphasised the need for a nuanced approach to the lockdown that would take all these factors into consideration.
Research by the South African Medical Research Council has found that 56% of female murder victims in South Africa were killed by their intimate partners. This is even more likely to increase during the difficult period of lockdown.
How then can this not be considered a cause for concern and a need for a revision of plans to curb GBV, particularly during lockdown? Bearing in mind that these are merely the reported cases; the true reflection of these incidents is often markedly higher.
The minister said that over 2,300 calls or complaints had been registered since the beginning of the lockdown on 27 March and that by 31 March, 148 suspects had been charged, which does not even amount to 10%.
The minister urged the management of the SAPS to “reinforce the FCS Units (Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Offences) at police stations to ensure the SAPS readiness and capacity to respond to related complaints”.
Meanwhile, on Sunday, we learnt that 14-year-old Siphiwe Sibeko, who had been missing since the previous Friday, was found raped and mutilated beyond recognition.
This begs the question of what is considered serious and violent. What value is a 14-year-old’s life against, say, a guard who is a victim of a cash-in-transit heist? Or a victim of a violent hijacking or house robbery? Is there a comparison, should there be?
What does a lax attitude towards GBV mean in a country such as South Africa where leaders of political organisations use accusations of GBV against each other as political pot shots?
On 3 April, Phinah Kodisang, CEO of Soul City Institute (SCI), said, “Gender-based violence undermines the safety, dignity, health and human rights of thousands of women and girls. Many of whom are now locked down in isolation with those they fear the most.”
She went on to say, “Women and girls are now faced with a double whammy of Covid-19 related trauma”. She said, “The SCI commends SAPS for swift action in response to lockdown violations and calls upon the Police Minister Bheki Cele to ensure similar swift action against GBV during this lockdown period and beyond.”
On Monday 6 April the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, recognising the very real danger of gender-based violence during this time, said that it should be made a key part of Covid-19 plans:
“We know lockdowns and quarantines are essential to suppressing Covid-19, but they can trap women with abusive partners. Over the past weeks, as economic and social pressures and fear have grown, we have seen a horrifying global surge in domestic violence. In some countries, the number of women calling support services has doubled.”
He went on to underline the importance of a comprehensive global response, saying, “Women’s rights and freedoms are essential to strong, resilient societies. Together, we can and must prevent violence everywhere, from war zones to people’s homes, as we work to beat Covid-19.”
What is worrying is the attitude shown towards GBV as a foregone conclusion of South African culture in that it is not considered serious or violent. It should in fact form a central consideration of allocation of resources and responses by law enforcement and social development. Looking at the State of Disaster regulations on Social Development, it is difficult to work out a comprehensive and effective way envisaged for this.
On Tuesday 7 April, the Deputy Minister of Social Development was due to give an update on the envisaged plan for the “Expansion of services for GBV during Covid-19 lockdown”; this was however later postponed “until further notice”.
More shelters should be made available as well as police acutely trained for immediate response to these reports. This initiative would be better served by consultation and joint effort with the civil society organisations that deal with GBV. Perhaps more important, a reactionary approach should be replaced by a preventative one that looks to mitigate against these instances even happening at this time.
Ministers should also be careful with the language that they use as this can often be taken as policy and may send the wrong message out to the public, in this instance that “gender-based violence is not a serious or violent crime”. DM/MC
Che Guevara hailed from an Irish family.