Preventing violence against women: all talk and no action

2015-04-28

Two years ago, in his 2013 State of the Nation Address (SONA), South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma emphasised the need to improve the status of women in the country. He said that this was a priority for the government.

He also referred to the Women Empowerment and Gender Equality Bill, which criminalises practices that adversely affect women and girls, and which calls for women to be equally represented in decision-making structures. Zuma promised that the bill would soon become law – which has still not happened. He also spoke about gender-based violence (GBV) and strategies aimed at reducing violence against women. These promises were no doubt in response to the tragic and brutal gang rape and murder of Anene Booysen on 2 February that year.

During this year’s SONA, in the absence of a high-profile rape case like that of Booysen, the president was largely silent on the issue of gender-based violence save for a single sentence that, ‘We are making progress in fighting crimes against women and children.’ This is a strange statement to make considering that the murder rates of both women and children have increased in the latest crime statistics.

South Africa has very high levels of reported sexual assaults. Despite this, the most recent results of the National Victims of Crime Survey, which were released in December last year, revealed that the number of victims who report their attacks to the police has dropped by over 20% since 2011. Any reduction in the sexual offences crime category is therefore likely to be largely due to under-reporting, and not a reflection of any real reduction of GBV.

Courts can only react after violence has been committed, and cannot prevent it

Unfortunately, there was no update in the SONA on the initiatives promised in 2013, nor any news of future strategies. Since 1994, the country has witnessed the drafting and introduction of several policies and laws aimed at reducing and eradicating gender-based violence (such as the Domestic Violence Act, Sexual Offences Act of 2007 and the 365 National Action Plan to End Gender Violence). Government has also ratified international and local protocols to show its commitment to dealing with gender-based violence. Yet it seems little has changed.

Last year it appeared that some progress had been made when the Department of Justice and Correctional Services reported that R100 million had been allocated to reintroduce sexual offences courts. These were meant to provide specialised victim-support services; improve the effectiveness of witnesses in court; reduce the turnaround time in finalising sexual offences matters; and improve conviction rates. But, important as this is, the courts can only react after violence has been committed, and cannot prevent it from happening in the first place.

To prevent and truly reduce GBV, a different approach is needed: one that does not necessarily prioritise the criminal justice system. A coalition of campaign partners – among them Sonke Gender Justice, People Opposing Women Abuse, Thusanang and Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre – have called for the government to follow through on its promises to create a National Strategic Plan (NSP) for gender-based violence.

Gender-based violence is a breach of the fundamental right to life, liberty, security and dignity

A 2015 Gender Links report on the need for a NSP stresses that such a plan would be an ‘important tool to gain much-needed political commitment and funding…’ To avoid continuing the trend of empty promises, Gender Links has recommended that the NSP must ‘be fully costed and commit significant new resources; be developed through an open, inclusive and consultative process; create real accountability by reviving and reconstituting the National Gender-Based Violence Council’.

If reconstituted, the National Council for Gender-Based Violence could play an important role in monitoring and evaluating the work of the state, private sector and civil society organisations in implementing policies, programmes and strategies to promote gender equality and transformation.

There is no disputing the serious long-term effects of violence, particularly violence against women. A recent study by KPMG estimated the human cost of violence against women to the South African economy in 2012/13 at between R28.4 billion and R42.4 billion. This includes the costs of services, economic losses, the financial effect of decreased productivity and low earning resulting from gender-based violence.

Chapter 12 of the National Development Plan envisages a country where people ‘living in South Africa feel safe and have no fear of crime:’ where ‘women can walk freely in the street and the children can play safely outside’. Gender-based violence is a breach of the fundamental right to life, liberty, security, dignity, non-discrimination, as well as physical and mental integrity, and is therefore a direct breach of the constitution. Combating it must be prioritised if we are to achieve the vision contained in the NDP.

Reitumetse Mofana, Junior Researcher, Governance, Crime and Justice Division, ISS Pretoria

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