Opinionista Marelise Van Der Merwe 14 December 2015

The impact of gender-based violence on the economy

In the wake of the 16 Days of Activism, which recently drew to a close, it’s worth looking at what gender-based violence is costing us - not just socially and morally, but also economically and politically.

Last month, the World Economic Forum released its annual Gender Gap Report. South Africa is faring well in the measures in this particular report: it ranks 17th out of 145 countries, in fact. Where one represents perfect equality and 0 represents total inequality, South Africa achieved an overall score of 0.759.

Particularly encouraging is political representation. South Africa scored was ranked 14th for political empowerment and seventh for the number of women in parliament. However, in other areas there was cause for concern. South Africa ranked 85th for its literacy rate among girls and women, and 107th for primary education enrolment. In terms of wage equality for similar work, the equality score was 0.69, and overall income equality was rated at 0.59. In fact, wage inequality is a massive problem globally – according to the report, the annual pay for women only now equals the amount men were earning ten years ago.

Internationally, the picture is similar to that in South Africa where economic versus political inequality is concerned. The report notes that the greatest progress has been made in the political world, thanks in no small part to widespread voluntary quotas. However, there is still by no means equality. Just 19% of parliamentarians and 18% of ministers globally are women, and 50% of countries have had at least one female head of state, but this does not mean that the majority of heads of state overall have not been men. “Much more needs to be done,” the report notes.

In terms of educating women, the picture is nuanced. The United States leads the pack, but South Africa is not doing too badly either, relatively to other countries. India, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are the worst off. But education doesn’t translate to economic equality. “Another way of illustrating the problem is to consider that while more women than men are enrolling at university in 97 countries, women make up the majority of skilled workers in only 68 countries and the majority of leaders in only four,” the report reads.

The concern, though, is that political empowerment has not filtered down, and although the numbers look good on paper, true equality is some distance away. The report also does not break down enough detail to give a true picture of the global labour force: it fails to indicate, for example, that although women perform 66% of the world’s work, and produce 50% of its food, they earn 10% of the income and own 1% of the world’s property. The Business Women’s Association of South Africa points out that only 16% of our directors are women. BWA’s Claire Mathonsi wrote in 2013, “Research has shown that South Africa’s economy will grow by between 4-6% as a result of increased female participation, and that more women in the workforce could drastically raise the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of developing countries 4% to 19% [within two years].”

Economic empowerment and gender-based violence (GBV) are closely linked. Economically disempowered women are vulnerable to gender-based violence; conversely, GBV is economically damaging, both on a micro and macro level. “Strategies for empowering women economically to give women greater autonomy in securing livelihoods, including through self-employment, collective income-generating arrangements within households and communities, formal employment and entrepreneurial market activity, have shown some of the best-evaluated outcomes in terms of reducing participating women’s future experience of violence,” writes Open Society’s Jacqui True (2015). True cites Stella Resko’s 2010 survey of 2,341 single mothers, which found that male violence against women correlated with length of unemployment, but that violence was 41% less when the female partner was employed.

However, it’s not as easy as 1+1 = 2, and the opposite may also apply. In some cases, women’s economic empowerment also functions as a catalyst for GBV, where the male partner perceives the female partner’s empowerment as a sign of his own disempowerment. One study connected a feeling of economic disempowerment among men to perpetration of violence. The key, then, is not simply to create opportunities for women, but also to tackle social attitudes. “If the World Bank is concerned that violence against women is a barrier to economic growth, then investing in policies that promote social and economic equality between women and men is crucial for the prevention of violence as well as for spurring economic recovery,” writes True.

There is compelling data that supports this, not just in South Africa, but the world over. Combating violence is a key part of economic recovery, and in South Africa in particular, GBV is a significant part of the problem to be resolved. A late 2014 study by KPMG and Sonke Gender Justice found that GBV costs South Africa between R28.4 billion and R42.4 billion per year – or between 0.9% and 1.3% of GDP respectively in 2012 and 2013. South Africa, despite its high score in the WEF report, has one of the highest rates of GBV in the world, with the female homicide rate in 2009 being five times the average global rate.

Some of the most comprehensive studies, in both developed and developing countries, estimate the cost of violence to be between 1 – 2% of GDP, and these are widely accepted to be under-estimates, given the conservatism of the methodology and the gross under-reporting of violence,” the report states. The effects of GBV on the economy can be attributed to lost tax revenue, lost earnings, diverted resources, opportunity costs and various other costs. There is also a significant burden on the public healthcare system, social services, the police, the justice system and prevention of both victims and perpetrators from participating in the economy.

The report further points out that the estimated cost of R28 billion per year could provide wage subsidies for 100% of unemployed youth, build over half a million houses, pay all child support grants for eight years, fund 200,000 teacher salaries for one year, or – poignantly in the wake of #FeesMustFall – pay the fees of 900,000 engineering students.

A report by the World Bank, which focuses on a range of countries, further extrapolates areas of cost. “Studies for developing countries conclude that the health impact of GBV on women can be as high as some of the leading causes of injury; consequences are especially serious in the area of reproductive health. Previous studies estimating the socioeconomic costs of GBV have documented the impact of GBV on earnings due to death and lost productivity, job loss, lost productivity of the abuser due to incarceration, and loss of tax revenues due to death and incarceration,” the report notes. There is also an effect on DALYs (disability-adjusted life years).

The effects are also intergenerational, not just for women and girls. “Women who are victimised by physical violence—whether at the hands of intimate partners or relatives—are more likely to use violence in disciplining their children. Much scientific evidence has documented that children exposed to such violence are themselves more likely to engage in violent and delinquent behaviours,” the report adds.

All of which raises the question: what exactly is sexism costing us? In terms of sheer monetary value, a heck of a lot. It’s probably more than the estimated R28 billion, due in no small part to what the KPMG/Sonke report authors call the “multiplier effect”, or a ripple effect on the economy. There’s no telling what the ultimate social cost is of intergenerational violence, or of overburdening the country’s systems with disproportionately high levels of GBV. There’s no way to calculate, accurately, the effects of GBV on substance abuse, psychiatric health, or educational and career performance. Or, for that matter, on the performance of learners in schools.

The above also raises the question of how relevant the WEF rankings are. This is a more difficult question to answer. In terms of on-the-ground accuracy, they leave something to be desired. But the report is still a valuable litmus test of where we stand in many respects, and an indicator of we are doing right. South Africa has made important progress in a number of key areas. But this is only the beginning. If we, and other countries across the world, continue to work against inequality and GBV, the social and economic rewards will be incalculable for us all. DM



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