Monograph 41: Violence Against Women in Metropolitan South Africa: A Study on Impact and Service Delivery, By Sandra Bollen, Lillian Artz


The past several years have been marked by increasing activity in the area of violence against women in South Africa. Through the efforts of the women’s movement, service providers, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the academic community, violence against women has been brought to the forefront of public and political attention. Along with increased efforts to secure appropriate services and legal reform for survivors of gender-based violence, there has also been increased research, aiming to provide more substantive information and discussion about the nature, scope and dimensions of the problem.

Limitations of existing information

Knowledge about the frequency and extent of violence against women in South Africa is currently based largely on police statistics, victim surveys and a series of estimates by NGOs working with survivors of violence. Though there have been various attempts to determine the prevalence of domestic violence and sexual assault in this country, available statistics reflect only a small portion of cases.

Estimating the level of gender-based violence by utilising either police reports or victimisation surveys has been problematic. For instance, gender-based crimes recorded by the police are widely accepted as reflecting a small percentage of the actual incidence of sexual victimisation (it is estimated by the South African Police Service (SAPS) that only one out of every 35 rapes is reported to them). Victimisation surveys and gender violence research have also yielded under-estimations and inaccurate results for a variety of reasons:

  • Women who are or have been victims of gender-based crimes are rarely in a position to discuss this violation in public or with a complete stranger. The reasons survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence do not report incidents to the police (embarrassment, self-blame, fear of not being believed, trauma of official action, secondary victimisation by state officials or fear of retaliation), would be similar to the reasons survivors of gender-based violence are extremely reluctant to confide in unknown interviewers about questions of an intimate nature.1 Research has also shown that many women are reluctant to report sexual or physical victimisation when they feel they should have predicted when a man would act violently toward them.2 Feeling responsible for the attack is unfortunately a very common reaction for women.

  • Domestic violence is not codified in South African law as a separate criminal offence, but instead falls under the crime of assault or assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm. To date the South African Police Service (SAPS) has been reluctant to differentiate between general crimes of assault and assaults of a domestic nature in their collection of statistics. As a result, domestic violence remains hidden in reported statistics of assault. More importantly, the ongoing and pervasive nature of domestic violence is not reflected. The increasing intensity and lethality of domestic violence, as well as the multiple forms that domestic violence takes, are not adequately documented. Domestic violence thus remains a series of ‘one-off’ incidents in the eyes of the criminal justice system.

  • Definitions effectively exclude a number of acts that women experience as assault of a sexual nature. This may influence the findings of surveys and other gender violence research: many women may not have spoken about their experiences, as these did/do not fall within the current legal definitions.The current legal situation in South Africa recognises certain sexual acts as unlawful. Rape is presently defined in common law as the unlawful, intentional sexual intercourse with a woman without her consent; and indecent assault (also a common law definition) is defined as the unlawful and intentional assault with the object of committing an indecency.

  • Criminal justice definitions of sexual offences are narrow, hence participants in research studies perceive the crime within this legal framework. For example, current rape law is gender, object and orifice specific: for rape to have occurred the woman’s vagina must have been penetrated by the man’s penis. The survivor, based on her knowledge or understanding of sexual assault, may disregard sexual violations that do not fit the prevailing legal or social definitions of sexual assault. In other words, surveys may not capture the broad range of violations experienced by women. Further, like legal and prescribed social definitions of rape (and domestic violence), victimisation and other surveys may also impose predetermined definitions of sexual victimisation, thereby narrowing the scope of responses. For example, a review of twenty studies of rape prevalence showed that most estimates varied, largely due to the kinds of questions asked, the way they were asked and whether the participants were probed for further information.3

It is therefore likely that there is a substantial discrepancy between assaults that are reported to the police, assaults that are revealed in research surveys and the actual number of gender-based offences that occur.

Indicators of the extent and nature of the problem

With these limitations in mind, research on violence against women has estimated that between one out of four, and one out of every six women in South Africa are in abusive relationships4 and that one women is killed by her partner every six days.5 Research has also found that an average of 80% of rural women are victims of domestic violence.6

The most recent statistics on rape provided by the SAPS show that 49 289 rapes were reported in 1998.7 According to police statistics, rape was one of the few serious crimes that increased steadily by an average of 7% per year between 1994 and 1997. By comparison, the twenty most serious crimes increased by an average of 1% over the same period. (Between 1997 and 1998, reported rape decreased by 5.5%.) When South African crime ratios are compared with those of 89 Interpol member states reflected in its 1996 statistics, South Africa has the highest ratio of reported rape cases per 100 000 people in the world.8

More broadly, South African research on violence against women emphasises that:

  • Domestic violence is a common phenomenon.

  • The range of abuses that women experience is wide, and includes physical, sexual, psychological and economic abuse, as well as stalking, forced isolation in the home and other controlling behaviours.

  • Most cases of domestic violence and rape are not reported to the police.

  • Even when domestic violence and rape are detected by the criminal justice system, the perpetrator frequently goes unpunished: only 9% of rape cases reported to the police in 1998 resulted in a conviction.9

  • The results of domestic violence are severe. The trauma of abuse is life-long and affects a woman and her children not only physically, but also emotionally and psychologically.

The United Nations has referred to these abuses as a global epidemic that knows no geographic, cultural or linguistic boundaries. Abuse affects all women without regard to their level of income. The cultures, tradition, politics, dominant religion and sociological development of countries reporting high levels of gender-based violence vary. It is safe to conclude that the one risk factor of this global epidemic is gender (i.e being female).10 The Global Report on Women’s Human Rights states that domestic violence is a leading cause of female injury in almost every country in the world and is typically ignored by the state, or only erratically punished.11

Aims of this study

Internationally, there has been a dramatic increase in the scope and magnitude of clinical and investigative interest in domestic violence. But much of this research and theory stem from Western countries with socio-political and historical experiences that are distinctly different from those of women in developing countries. It is for this reason that more substantive and quantitative data needs to be procured. Addressing such endemic violence also requires a comprehensive range of both prevention strategies, and interventions to deal with the aftermath of violent incidents.12

This study aims to inform interventions required by service providers and government departments for dealing with violence against women. Understanding the experiences and perceptions of survivors of violence should be the first step in making policy decisions that are aimed at promoting women’s interests. The survey thus focuses on the impact of violence against women, as well as their experiences with service providers.

The study also attempted to alleviate many of the methodological problems related to research on violence against women by ensuring that:

  • Definitions of violence were comprehensive and reflected women’s experiences, thus moving beyond legally defined understandings of what constitutes violence against women.

  • Interviews with victims of gender-based violence were conducted in a sensitive manner, so that women could freely and safely discuss their experiences of violence.

  • Information was collected about economic and emotional abuse — two key types of abuse often disregarded. Hence, they are less likely to be responded to by key governmental organisations (e.g. the police and the criminal justice system).

  • Women were encouraged to recommend reform in the delivery of criminal justice and non-governmental services.

The research process involved the active participation by those who support and assist victims of gender-based violence, through a process of consultation about what is to be researched, the methodology used and the analysis and use of the findings. Based on the experience of survivors, this study is well placed to provide insights and critiques of existing practices around violence against women.

Given the exploratory nature of the project, as well as its scope, the aim of this document is to present a descriptive analysis of the findings. Data is presented in a manner that will hopefully enable and encourage independent interpretation. An analysis of the results from a policy perspective will follow this monograph.

feature-5icon-printerlogo-chlogo-frPSC REPORT