Gender-based violence in South Africa is a scourge. At the heart of it is the impact of imbalanced power relations at individual and societal levels and inequities that are entrenched in family, communal and social structures.
Gender-based violence continues to plague South Africa and the numbers of women being raped, brutally murdered or beaten are shocking. But, perhaps of greater concern is the police force's apparent lack of urgency to respond and investigate the allegations of gender-based violence (GBV). It would appear that this too stems from entrenched behavior related to societal beliefs and norms.
While strides have been made in the legislative response to GBV through the enactment of three GBV laws in January 2022, and the adoption of the National Strategic Plan on Gender-based Violence and Femicide (NSP-GBVF), which is a coordinated and multisectoral response to this shadow pandemic, social obstacles still exist and drive GBV in society. These social obstacles are often related to the patriarchal values that seem to be accepted in many communities. For example, the "commodification" and "ownership" of women and their bodies by men through the payment of lobola, marriage, gifts and support to women drives GBV. Women find themselves beholden to some men who remind them of these monetary exchanges as a way of controlling women's time, social interactions, earnings and services. The media is awash with reports of women who have been killed by their former partners for daring to walk away from toxic and abusive relationships. Protection orders against abusive partners, predominantly men, have proved to be of little deterrence. Many women have been killed despite having orders against their abusive former partners.
We believe that while lobola and dowry are deemed as good cultural and religious practices aimed to honor and establishing relationships between two families, it appears that the practice has become a breeding ground for violence and toxic masculinity.
Statements such as "I can't eat takeaways when I paid lobola" and "I will ask for a refund for my lobola, you are not a good submissive wife" are believed and go unchallenged in families and communities. Another example is the practice of ukuthwala in some KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo province communities, where young girls are "married off" to older men at the expense of them education and development. The prevalence of this harmful traditional practice points to poverty and little or no socioeconomic prospects, as well as high levels of inequality as drivers of GBV.
The Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation's (CSVR) research in eight communities has highlighted the prevalence of grooming children as a driver of GBV in communities. When this grooming is aimed at facilitating a child marriage in exchange for money or a better life, it places numerous risks on the life and prospects of the girl-child. Young girls are often unable to negotiate for their sexual and reproductive health rights in these child marriages. The men are aware of the limited choices of these child brides and often abuse them, using childbearing as a measure to further silence and control them. The socialisation of women to accept subtle forms of abuse in relationships, such as verbal and economic abuse, violent outbursts, economic abuse, a slap or breaking things in anger, is a big issue.
Normalising these forms of violence provides fertile ground for the escalation of these nonvisible yet damaging forms of abuse to more visible violent physical forms, often leading to femicide. The many discouraging voices women encounter in reporting these cases of violence from social support and criminal justice systems are telling. Statements such as "forgive him, think about the children, how will you cope without him, he is not a bad husband – he made a mistake", and the actions of police officers who go into "marriage counselor" mode when women report these cases, are further testament to the hoops women have to jump through to access justice.
ADDRESSING THE SOCIAL ISSUES
We have found that many women are trapped by their socialisation. They are unable to view their husband's or partners' abusive behavior and words as violations and believe that such behaviour is normal. This is then compounded when extended families and the community also regard such behavior as normal and acceptable. If we are to eradicate GBV and address its multidimensional impacts, we need to adopt a social justice approach, which targets the social issues and challenges the perceptions and accepted norms of both men and women. These are the hardest to deal with as they are deeply entrenched and normalised as part of our daily life, forming a part of our belief systems. The "woke" among us who are aware that abuse is wrong are often silenced through
labelling, for example, "uyaphapha, uthand' izinto, that's why you are single or awumameli, you are stubborn". A social justice approach will require that we address the imbalance of power and male
dominance rooted in the patriarchal belief systems prevalent in interpersonal relationships. We also must challenge the culture of denial and silence surrounding and feeding GBV. We must speak up when one of us is being brutalised and violated. Our social circles must move beyond being safe spaces for speaking out about our experiences to becoming reporting mechanisms of any GBV incidents.
CSVR Social justice work in the communities
CSVR is a multidisciplinary organisation with a track record of 33 years of providing quality and context-responsive service to victims of gross human rights violations and communities most affected by violence. We seek to understand and prevent violence and inequality, heal its effects and build sustainable peace at the community, national and regional levels. We do this by undertaking cutting-edge and evidence-based research to inform our work, shape public discourse and inform policy-making, and leading multilevel advocacy interventions to raise awareness,
establish and maintain partnerships and networks and facilitate victims' access to justice and capacity-building and training. We also provide mental health and psychosocial support services to victims of sexual and gender-based violence, collective violence, state-led violence and conflict-related violence, among other forms of violence. CSVR actively works and collaborates with eight communities in South Africa – Ekangala, Mamelodi, Diepsloot, Inner City Johannesburg, Marikana, Kagiso, Alexandra and Orange Farm. In these communities, our multidisciplinary work involves understanding the key drivers and root causes of gender-based violence (GBV) through research and community dialogues; providing quality and timely mental health and psychosocial support services to victims of GBV as well as addressing intergenerational trauma that presents in communities; undertaking advocacy and healing campaigns for victims and community leaders aimed at transforming norms, attitudes and beliefs that perpetuate GBV and other forms of violence in communities; and working together with communities to develop community-led GBV prevention strategies that bring together local leaders, service providers and community members as responders to the violence in their own communities.
We seek to understand and prevent violence and inequality, heal its effects and build sustainable peace.