As a young woman in South Africa and a survivor of gender-based violence (GBV), every day I wake up, I consider the possibility of being abused, raped, killed, kidnapped or possibly trafficked – simply by being a woman. We are not safe in our homes, going to the post office, jogging, driving or taking an Uber, nor are we safe with the company we keep, especially if that company includes men.
According to Statistics South Africa (StatsSA), the fear of crime comes at a cost for women and girls and their ability to achieve their potential in every part of social and productive life. GBV in all forms hinders women and girls from the chance to achieve equality and freedoms as outlined in the Constitution. GBV is a pandemic that this country has failed to effectively recognise and address, a leviathan in its own right.
As women, we live with the reality that we are more likely to experience GBV by someone we know than some random stranger. This is debilitating, but yet it has become routine and normalised. We carry on with our lives as career women, friends, girlfriends, wives, sisters, daughters and mothers, while subconsciously living with the fear that our lives as women in this country are not valued.
How many marches, protests, imbizos, summits and shutdowns are needed? And how many other women like Jesse Hess, Tshegofatso Pule, and Uyinene Mrwetyana do we have to lose to GBV before change takes effect?
The real pandemic in South Africa
While South Africa deals with the Covid-19 pandemic, the real pandemic this country has long endured is GBV. GBV is known to every household, from the Cape Flats and Alexandra to Bishopscourt and Sandton. It moves across every boundary including race, culture, and class. In 2018, StatsSA found that the rate of murder of women is disproportionately high compared to the global average. In 2000, the South African murder rate of women was five times the global average.
As the Covid-19 lockdown commenced across the world, UN Secretary-General António Guterres tweeted that “peace is not just the absence of war. Many women under lockdown for #Covid-19 face violence where they should be safest: in their own homes”. He continued that “the combination of economic and social stresses brought on by the pandemic, as well as restrictions on movement, have dramatically increased the numbers of women and girls facing abuse, in almost all countries. However, even before the global spread of the new coronavirus, statistics showed that a third of women around the world experienced some form of violence in their lives.”
GBV-free societies do not exist, and unfortunately, South Africa is no exception.
In South Africa, 250 out of every 100,000 women are victims of sexual offences. In the 2016/17 South African Police Service (SAPS) statistics, 80% of the reported sexual offences were rape, while StatsSA reports that 68.5% of the sexual offences’ victims were women.
“This figure is among the highest in the world. For this reason, some have labelled South Africa as the rape capital of the world.”
Although unconsolidated, Police Minister Bheki Cele confirmed that the number of complaints on GBV during the first week of lockdown remained high and was concerning.
“Over 2,300 calls/complaints have been registered since the beginning of the lockdown on 27 March 2020 until 31 March 2020 and from these, 148 suspects were charged. The figure in relation to calls/complaints between January 2020 and 31 March 2020 stands at 15,924.”
As women, we know we are more likely to experience GBV by someone we know. According to the president, just over 50% of South African women had experienced violence at the hands of someone with whom they were in a relationship. The 2018 StatsSA report revealed that an estimated 21% of women 18 years and older have experienced physical violence by a partner and 6% of women have experienced sexual violence by a partner. It is, however, “widely believed that these numbers are inaccurate due to the fact that many cases of GBV go unreported”. All this is a sore reminder that life as a woman living in South Africa is a day-to-day gamble.
While some may claim the problem with GBV lies in the high consumption of alcohol by South Africans, the Covid-19 lockdown has proven that GBV persists, in high numbers, in the absence of legal alcohol sales. The problem of GBV runs much deeper than alcoholism; the real issue is rooted in systemic patriarchy.
South Africa is a patriarchal society. Like racism, patriarchy is so ingrained in our society that it has become normalised. It forms part of our households, places of employment, worship, and communities.
Take what might at face value seem a small example – but is, in fact, a micro-example of a pervasive system. The other day a man reached out to my colleague, a woman, to learn more about an online learning platform. Asking to meet on the matter, he insisted that she set up the meeting – by sending the calendar request to lock in the meeting date and time. She refused. If you do not take issue with his request, you are part of the problem. It was not my colleague’s role to set up a meeting request; as the person asking for assistance, it was his. His assumption was that the administrative duty was automatically hers. It is these “menial” incidents that snowball into larger, more recognisable, acts of patriarchy – such as GBV.
GBV often stems from emasculated men who use violence as a way to reclaim their power/authority, “winning” submission by enforcing punishment on their victim(s), according to Safer Spaces. It can range through physical, sexual, emotional, financial or structural. The perpetrators can be anyone, from intimate partners to acquaintances, strangers or institutions.
Solving a societal pandemic
Not enough has been done to address the core issues of GBV in South Africa. To do so, we need to challenge the status quo. Doing so could include:
- Government and civil society working together to teach consent to young boys and girls in schools, addressing systemic patriarchy in communities and primary and high schools, and teaching boys and girls about GBV;
- Providing adequate training to police on GBV and how to handle sensitive cases that involve GBV, while establishing separate GBV units at police stations where women feel safe and heard; and
- Government public relations messaging on GBV accurately calling out the perpetrators of GBV without painting women as victims.
Addressing GBV goes beyond the SAPS and courtrooms. It needs to be addressed at a societal level. It is time that we call out the perpetrators of these crimes and the men in our lives because they are our friends, boyfriends, fathers, uncles, brothers and husbands. It is long overdue for the men in this country to stand up by not just protecting women, but by calling out and exposing the perpetrators that run in their circles too.
So, as the young people of South Africa, we need to fight systemic patriarchy and call on men to do the same. To ask freedom for women is not a crime, therefore, as women, this is not our fight alone. Audre Lorde once said, “there is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives”. It will take all our efforts, as a collective, to successfully curb GBV in South Africa, so tell your friends to pull up. DM