Maverick Citizen


Women traditional leaders play critical role in the fight against rural gender-based violence

Women traditional leaders play critical role in the fight against rural gender-based violence
President Cyril Ramaphosa with traditional leaders during the annual official opening of the National House of Traditional Leaders in Parliament, Cape Town, on 27 February 2018. (Photo: Gallo Images / Ziyaad Douglas)

Women traditional leaders are often the only source of justice and protection for GBV victims in rural communities. Calls for help often come in the dead of night, and these women know exactly who is calling just from hearing a voice.

The scourge of gender-based violence (GBV) in South Africa is endemic. Even with the move by the government to tighten legislation and interventions to address GBV in 2022, the unending number of victims remains an outrage and a deeply rooted challenge.

Rural communities have not been spared. 

Situated on the peripheries of urbanisation, access to resources and justice, these communities bear the brunt of the failed coordination and implementation of South Africa’s GBV response. 

Without adequate infrastructure to respond to violent crimes, many communities are left to fend for themselves, with dire consequences for the hope of ending GBV in South Africa.

In such communities, traditional leaders are often the first port of call. 

Without adequate resourcing of rural governance structures, including local government, traditional leaders have to step into multiple roles – including protecting victims of GBV – while still restoring relationships and maintaining peace in their communities.

This is often an arduous task for traditional leaders, who have to strike a balance between customary law and Roman-Dutch law which governs the formal systems of justice in the country.

The challenge of dealing with GBV is even more pronounced for women traditional leaders who are often also vulnerable to GBV themselves. 

Multiple roles

With multiple roles placed at their doorsteps by the sheer lack of resources and structures to respond to GBV in rural communities, and the maternal and nurturing role placed on them by gendered and cultural norms, these women know too well the implications of GBV for communities.

Often the first responders when GBV rears its ugly head in rural communities, women traditional leaders are often the only source of justice and protection for victims. 

Calls for help often come in the dead of night, and these women know exactly who is calling just from hearing a voice. In such close-knit communities, traditional leaders often have to go beyond the call of duty as mediators and peacemakers and attend to medical emergencies emanating from GBV.

While women traditional leaders are expected to pick up the pieces when GBV occurs in their communities, their own vulnerability in communities where patriarchy remains an obstacle to their full recognition remains inadequately acknowledged.

This begs the question, therefore, who protects the women traditional leaders when they too are faced with GBV? 

Tragically, women traditional leaders themselves often lack support and protection when they are faced with GBV. This is a damning indictment on many of our communities and society at large, where those who protect lack the same protection.

Despite embracing these challenges in fostering peaceful rural communities, the role of women traditional leaders in fighting GBV is not always recognised. This lack of acknowledgement by other stakeholders in the fight against GBV has stalled coordinated responses to gender-based violence in rural communities.


Apart from the lack of adequate resources, the policy formulation and implementation phases of GBV responses in South Africa have largely excluded women traditional leaders. This is despite their deep knowledge and understanding of the dynamics leading to and perpetuating GBV in rural communities.

In many ways, the exclusion of women traditional leaders in these processes emanates from the exclusion of rural women from broader participation in GBV policy responses.

Many victims of GBV often still seek restoration and mediation even when they approach the formal courts. 

Unfortunately, the court system is often slow to deliver justice and produces outcomes that present winners and losers, leaving other parties in the conflict disgruntled. The acceptance of these judgments by affected parties is often difficult and the root causes of GBV are seldom addressed.

Traditional leaders continue to advocate for the fostering of restorative justice approaches to dealing with GBV, particularly in rural communities where ties remain closely knit and traditional values and norms are well regarded and respected.

The limitations posed by the lack of recognition for women traditional leaders, as well as the institution of traditional leadership and customary laws, pose a stumbling block for ending GBV in rural communities. It also poses a broader threat to attaining the goals of South Africa’s National Action Plan (NAP) on Women, Peace and Security (WPS).

To date in South Africa, and in most countries on the African continent, women traditional leaders are rarely considered at all in achieving the WPS agenda. Yet, traditional leaders have enormous constituencies, an enduring popular legitimacy and authority in communities in most parts of the country (and continent) and the ability to mobilise people quickly and efficiently.

But partly because of the bad rap traditional leaders generally get in the media, policy circles and academia, they are often not taken seriously as stakeholders.

It is imperative for policymakers and all stakeholders in the fight against GBV to capitalise on the mediation skills and proximity to communities of women traditional leaders to broaden the scope of interventions against GBV in South Africa.

Embracing the institution of traditional leadership in policy-making and implementation is key to coordinated efforts against GBV and fostering peace and security in rural communities.

Women traditional leaders should be included in the implementation of the NAP on Women, Peace and Security. 

They have access to large constituencies, and they have the clout and heart to implement the priorities of the NAP with the support of other stakeholders. DM

This article draws from a Roundtable Dialogue co-hosted by the University of Pretoria’s Centre for Mediation in Africa and the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Pretoria framed within South Africa’s National Action Plan (NAP) on Women, Peace and Security (WPS).

Chenai Matshaka is with the Centre for Mediation in Africa at the University of Pretoria.

Nkosikazi Nondumiso Pumela Ngonyama is Chieftainess of the Cacadu Traditional Council, Mpunzana Great Place, Mthatha.


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