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Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, the shadow pandemic of patriarchal GBV rages unchecked


Danielle Hoffmeester is a Project Officer at The Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) in the Sustained Dialogues team.

Under lockdown, victims of gender-based violence are isolated, vulnerable, alone, and have severely limited options for escape.

The stories follow a script: countries declare a nationwide lockdown and within days helplines are inundated with complaints of domestic violence. We saw this in China, Brazil, Italy and more recently South Africa where  2,300 grievances were reported to the South African Police Services (SAPS) during the first week of lockdown. Frequently referred to as the “shadow pandemic”, the exponential increase in reports of gender-based violence (GBV) has shown that the Covid-19 pandemic cannot be treated as separate from social, economic, or political issues; instead, all are interlinked.

If we hope to contain the spread of the virus, we will have to radically transform the social behaviours and conditions we enact and enable. We will have to remodel the structural and systemic apparatuses that exacerbate socioeconomic vulnerability. And we will have to seriously rethink how it is that we conceptualise human security, especially in times of crisis.

The lockdown regulations put in place by President Cyril Ramaphosa have forced South Africans to physically isolate themselves from one another in an attempt to curb the spread of Covid-19. Citizens have been told to remain within their homes as a way to safeguard themselves from contracting and spreading the virus on the presumption that the home is a refuge from external danger. However, our nation has had to reckon with the fact that homes are also sites of violence and abuse, and the ideal of the nuclear family as a safety net is a patriarchal invention that frequently disempowers the person not at the apex of its power hierarchy, most notably women, children and LGBTQIA+ persons.

The alleged rape of a woman by her husband – a police officer sworn to protect – has forced many to confront the fact that abusers and rapists reside in their homes. These perpetrators of violence are our partners, husbands, fathers, uncles, cousins, and friends. Half of the women killed in South Africa today are murdered by their intimate partner, or by someone they are familiar with. This form of intimate terrorism challenges the presumption that men are protectors and women the protected. It challenges the belief that women are safer in their homes than outside. And the dissonance between the patriarchal ideal and reality posits that the division between the public-private sphere is a falsehood for someone who inhabits a body that is consistently and systematically devalued.

The increased threat to women’s safety is unsurprising. Heightened violence against women is intimately intertwined with disaster situations and a pandemic is no exception. Instead, it is almost always gendered and provides a further enabling environment for sexual and gender-based violence. Patriarchal violence is widespread during times of political stability and economic security; it would be unwise to think it would diminish during a global pandemic that threatens economic dislocation. It would be to our great detriment to imagine that violence against women would abate during a time when mobility is limited and people are confined together in (cramped) spaces; where those addicted to substances experience withdrawal symptoms that manifest in irritation, anger, and violence. And where exposure to a potentially life-threatening virus lurks outside the home and threatens to upend your immune system. Within this context, frustration builds and conflict increases as according to the patriarchal script, and women are first to suffer.

Patriarchy, in much the same way as other systems we construct and give meaning to, is a highly adaptable ideological institution that mutates, evolves and modernises itself to complement the current sociopolitical conditions. While it is always violent, it updates itself so that it appears benign on the surface. The perceptions, ideas, and stereotypes we hold about gender – how it is constructed, arranged and performed – supports and sustains the growth and expansion of patriarchy making it tolerable and, in some instances, a preferred system of governance. Ideas about domination/submission; citizen/subject; attachment, dependence, and competition are deeply gendered and skewed in favour of (white) men. Patriarchal violence is an enduring shapeshifter; it did not surrender itself to the three waves of feminism but finds new ways to exist and inflict violence.

The patriarchy is in the rhetoric employed by statesmen who describe the global pandemic as a time of war, and in so doing elevate state security over that of human beings. It is seen in the prioritisation of the economy over public health and wellbeing. It is violently expressed in the rape of a teenaged girl at a homeless shelter in Strandfontein, Western Cape. It showed itself in the 87,000 complaints of domestic violence and it will continue to show itself by mutating in a similar way that viruses do. It is, therefore, imperative that we oppose, disrupt and dismantle it by updating our own tools. The pandemic that has disrupted our lives has presented an opportunity for feminists to relook how it is we frame and prioritise human security in a way that recognises and includes its gendered manifestations.

Human security is a radical departure from the traditional state-centric approach to security in that it centres social justice, but its collapse lies within its idea that women’s rights will follow naturally when states adopt a human-centric approach to national security. Women and gender minorities experience (in)security differently from cis men as they are subject to hierarchies and power inequities that increase their vulnerability to violence. In this, power is gendered and cannot be separated from patriarchy.

Time and again, history has shown that what constitutes a “person” or “people” and “citizen” often excludes women and any individual who embodies femininity. Within the nationwide lockdown itself, the term “human” is not gender-neutral. Women and men perform different social and economic roles and their needs are dissimilar. For women, there are colossal structural inequalities and discriminations that mean they are not guaranteed the most basic need for safety during times of “stability”, let alone a crisis. Women’s security cannot improve if human security is not identified or measured from a gendered perspective.

Under lockdown, victims of GBV are isolated, vulnerable, and alone, and have severely limited options for escape. While safe havens are operating as an essential service during this time, it is important to note that those shelters are under-funded and already operating at full capacity, while some are being repurposed as health centres. As the tests for Covid-19 increase, it is expected that the lockdown will remain in effect. While it is not yet understood whether the lockdown has effectively slowed transmission or bought us time, its societal effects are certain: vulnerable persons are now at an elevated risk of harm.

South Africa’s culture of violence is perpetuated through its patriarchal norms, systems and institutions of power that determine how it is we ‘human’ with one another. The performance of patriarchy during apartheid and colonialism differs from the patriarchy of the present, but the tell-tale markers of subjugation, sexual violence and strict adherence to gender norms remain.  

It is imperative that as patriarchy mutates, so, too, we must upgrade our tools to effectively dismantle it. Patriarchy is not an impervious system, or it would not need to adjust and adapt itself. We can disrupt the conditions that enable domestic and gendered violence. We can re-imagine and construct new social norms and systems that support victims of sexual and gender-based violence. We can make the patriarchy bend to the will of those it oppresses and succeed in overcoming it.

One way to do so would be to frame human security as inherently gendered; to acknowledge the ways in which power is skewed according to gender, sexuality and the performance of each. The Covid-19 pandemic is interlinked with the sociopolitical and economic power disparities and must be tackled with that in mind. DM


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