Fewer guns will save women’s lives in South Africa

Tighter gun control would bolster the government’s commitment to fighting gender-based violence.

Fifty-eight percent of South Africa’s domestic violence murder victims from April to June 2020 were women, according to national police statistics. Sixty-seven percent of these women were killed by a current or ex-intimate partner. In such cases, femicide is the final act in a pattern of chronic and escalating abuse. South Africa’s rate of femicide has been estimated at six times higher than the global average.

Research has consistently shown that having access to a firearm is a major risk factor in intimate femicide. In her book Femicide in South Africa, Nechama Brodie indicates that more than 80% of femicide victims attacked by their partner were ‘killed by a firearm injury, mostly from a single gunshot to the head or face … In three-quarters of these cases, the perpetrator is a legal firearm owner using a licensed weapon.’

This is not unique to South Africa – World Health Organization recommendations on how to tackle femicide emphasise strengthening gun laws and reducing gun ownership. This is based on research that has consistently shown that increased ownership of firearms is generally associated with an increase in homicide.

Research has consistently shown that access to a firearm is a major risk factor in intimate femicide

Results from a study assessing the impact of the Firearms Control Act on firearm homicide in five of South Africa’s largest cites indicate that the implementation of the law saved the lives of 4 585 people between 2001 and 2005. This is why the government’s current review of the act is important, as it seeks to further restrict public ownership of guns. Such a step can add to the ongoing measures to address gender-based violence in the country.

Last year the government adopted the Gender-Based Violence and Femicide National Strategic Plan and created a Femicide Watch website. This shows a renewed commitment to addressing what has been dubbed an ‘epidemic’ and a ‘national crisis.’ But while the plan is essential and the website provides useful resources to the public, it isn’t enough to stop femicide and gender-based violence – or even reduce it significantly.

Femicide is predictable because it usually follows prior incidents of abuse, the WHO research shows. Moreover, it indicates that most perpetrators are or were intimate male partners. A lot is known about patterns of violence in intimate relationships and their associated predictive factors. We know that if not tackled early, violence and abuse tend to escalate over time, and with that, the risks of femicide.

Examples of escalating abuse include stalking, controlling behaviour, and threatening to harm a child or pet. Although not all abusive relationships end in the murder of a woman, many do. Stricter gun control is a critical preventive strategy for intimate femicide and violence against women more generally. Fewer guns mean fewer femicides.

Government’s national plan against gender-based violence isn’t enough to significantly reduce femicide

However, not everyone supports more gun control in South Africa. Since the act was gazetted for comments in May, over 100 000 submissions have been received, and debates between the pro- and anti-gun lobbies have been reignited. This shows that gun control is a contentious issue in the country.

One of the unsupported assertions from the pro-firearm lobby has been that removing firearms for self-defence would place women at risk of gender-based violence. However, the facts show a very different picture.

First, of all registered firearm owners in South Africa, only 19% are women. This makes it essential to hear whether the majority of the country’s women (who don’t own guns) support firearm ownership. Second, there is no evidence that having a firearm increases the owner’s safety. In fact, when it comes to femicide, there is plenty of evidence that the presence of a gun is a real risk factor.

A common counter-argument can be anticipated: that stricter gun control alone isn’t enough to eliminate femicide since it could still be committed with other weapons. That is true. However, as Brodie reminds us, fewer guns in the hands of potential perpetrators would prevent a great number of deaths. And other kinds of weapons are not as lethal as guns.

We must hear from the majority of women (who don’t own guns) whether they support firearm ownership

It is also vital that police take reports of domestic and intimate partner violence seriously. They need to be trained to recognise and intervene in cases of potential femicide by identifying risk factors for perpetration or when women make multiple reports of being re-victimised

Reducing gender-based violence and femicide requires the attention of all South Africans, including government, civil society and the business sector. Any approaches should however be linked to controlling firearm access by amending the Firearms Control Act. This will save lives.

Jody van der Heyde, Research Intern, Justice and Violence Prevention, ISS Pretoria

This research is funded by the Hanns Seidel Foundation. The opinions and statements in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the HSF.

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Photo: Police block the entrance to the Cape Town World Economic Forum from gender activists protesting South Africa's high levels of sexual violence. Guy Oliver / Alamy Stock Photo

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