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There can never be true empowerment of women as long as women are not safe

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Dr Nomafrench Mbombo is the Western Cape Minister of Health and Wellness.

Based on data captured in the Western Cape between January and mid-August this year, more than 11,000 women were admitted to emergency centres. This represents 27.8% of all trauma cases.

This year, South Africa marked its Women’s Month campaign on 9 August with the theme, “Women’s socioeconomic rights and empowerment: Building back better for women’s improved resilience.”

It is everyone’s goal to realise true equality, equity and empowerment of women, but there is a crucial factor that is required for this to take place: the safety of women.

The national government has been a stumbling block in South Africa due to its inability to provide a conducive environment for our citizens to thrive. 

One of the main failures is our criminal justice system, which has continuously allowed violent perpetrators to escape justice. This, in addition to many other factors, has made many women unsafe.

While we have seen significant improvements in the crime statistics for the Western Cape, as a government we remain deeply concerned about the disproportionate impact of crime on women in the province. 

The provincial crime statistics between April and June this year showed an increase in attempted murder – up by 4.4% (seven cases), with grievous bodily harm assaults up by 1.6% (32 cases), when compared with the previous year.

Even though statistics from the South African Police Service have provided us with a picture that shows the lack of safety of women in our country, it unfortunately does not paint the full picture of a woman’s lived experience in South Africa. This is where the health sector can provide insight.

To explain this, one has to imagine the following: if you are a vulnerable woman who has been abused and is in need of medical attention, your first instinct is to go to the nearest healthcare facility. You do this as you know you will be better assisted there than at a police station, where the wheels of justice turn slowly. This means that many of the incidents not recorded in the quarterly crime statistics are recorded in our emergency centres (ECs).

Based on data captured in the Western Cape between January 2023 and 15 August 2023, we know that more than 11,000 women were admitted to emergency centres. This represents 27.8% of all trauma cases.

The majority were between the ages of 20 and 40 years old (66.8% or 7,407).

When looking at the data on female clients only, the majority had been assaulted with a blunt object (60.6%), followed by assault with a sharp object (26.5%).

For comparison, in the same period, the number of clients (male and female) presenting to these ECs following a road traffic incident was 11,043.

Between January 2022 and February this year, around 1,800 female clients who presented at ECs following a trauma/injury were pregnant. Of these, 50% were injured due to assault.

Owing to this dire need, the Western Cape Government has established the Violence Prevention Unit (VPU).

Based on the Cardiff Model for Violence Prevention, the VPU is using the data from our healthcare facilities to identify and design unique interventions in our communities across the Western Cape. 

This will strengthen the Western Cape government’s approach to evidence-based decision-making for crime fighting and crime prevention. As this unit is further capacitated, it will provide our safety stakeholders both in government and civil society with these proposed interventions.

The VPU will further strengthen the Western Cape government’s commitment to keeping our residents safe.

For the past four years, the Safety Plan has brought together all departments to act together in reducing crime through both crime prevention and crime fighting.

Whether it be the deployment of our additional 1,200 LEAP officers in crime hotspots, identifying youth at risk and preventing them from falling into a life of crime, or leveraging strategic partnerships with civil society stakeholders through area-based teams in our communities, we are taking the bold steps needed, while knowing that there is still much work to do.

The interdependence of safety and empowerment is crucial for us as government to understand when confronting this issue. But it is not only the responsibility of health departments or law enforcement – it is also that of every resident.

We need to all work together to ensure women have safe spaces to realise their own potential. Without safety for women, there can never be true women empowerment. DM

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