By Mandla Masingi
National Women's Month is an opportunity for South Africa to celebrate women's achievements, and a good time to take stock of how far remains. Ask any woman in the country what she would change about the world she lives in and what most constrains her personal freedoms, and surely many would answer crime. Women often feel unsafe in their own communities and even their homes. Most threatening of all is gun violence.
In a 2006 study of firearm deaths in 112 countries, South Africa rated third highest (26.8 per 100 000 people), after Columbia and Venezuela. According Ceasefire Campaign Coordinator Laura Pollecutt, 1 in 3 female homicides are committed with a gun.
This corroborates findings by Gun Free South Africa suggesting that gun owners are five times more at risk of killing their intimate partners than non-gun owners, as well as 2004 research by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, which found that an intimate partner kills a woman in South Africa every six hours.
In response, The Ceasefire Campaign has joined a global campaign to highlight guns and domestic violence, under the theme "Disarm Domestic Violence." The campaign seeks to get guns out of the hands of those likely to use them to kill an intimate partner.
There have been some efforts to get South Africa's easy access to guns under control. The Firearm Control Act 60 of 2000 & Regulations makes owning a gun conditional on a competency test, background check of the applicant, inspection of an owners' premise, and licensing of the weapon by the police. This legislation also required the nation's million unlicensed firearm owners to hand in or dispose their firearms, with a possible penalty of 15 years' imprisonment.
However, there are many gaps, which leave one wondering how much safer this makes South Africa, especially for women. To begin with, according to Gun Free South Africa, a national study found that boyfriends or husbands killed almost half of all women murdered in one year, and four out of five of the guns used were legal.
This raises questions of what constitutes competency. Part of this relates to history of violence.
"You can not have a protection order against you and you can not have a history of abuse," says Pollecutt.
South Africa's Domestic Violence Acts also allows magistrate courts to order police to remove a gun from the home as part of a protection order. Yet according to Gun Free, while the process seems straightforward, service providers find that courts hardly ever order the police to remove guns. Often, when people fill in the application form, they don't give magistrates the information they need.
The protections seem fair enough, but given that domestic abuse is highly underreported in the country, this still leaves a clear gap. Correct implementation seems like a huge mountain to climb.
Research done by Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre To End Violence Against Women notes that police often leave the responsibility of looking for the perpetrators to the abused. When the abusers do not appear in court, the case is generally dropped. If a gun is involved, this could be very dangerous for the complainant.
There is also little public confidence in the ability of police to get guns off the street.
"It is highly possible that some of those weapons could actually get sold back to the black market by corrupt officials. So it's actually going to be quite hard," said Johannesburg resident, France Vanveeran.
A hawker who chose to remain anonymous echoed Vanveeran's words, saying "Where police see guns, they see money. There is no one who can return guns because everyone wants to defend themselves." It is going to be difficult to monitor the disarming process with corruption taking its toll in the corridors of the justice system.
According to Gun Free South Africa between the year 2000 and 2007, an average of 18 731 civilians firearms were reported stolen or lost. On the other hand, an extract from Under the gun: An assessment of firearm crime and violence in South Africa 2008 reads ". . . most homicides are reportedly committed with illegal firearms, which researchers claim to have been primarily stolen from and/or lost by licensed civilian owners, state armouries, and state personnel. "
Another Johannesburg woman who chose to remain anonymous, advocates for a gun free South Africa.
"Honestly I think that guns should be banned, the only people who should have guns are the police because they are properly trained," she said. "But once they are off duty they should hand it in to the station commander. They should not be allowed to take guns home with them."
Pollecut also shares the same sentiments, stating that police and soldiers should not be allowed take home their guns. This, after she shared with me a case that the Ceasefire Campaign is following very closely.
Many will remember news stories of a South African soldier, accused of raping and killing a 14-year-old Burundian girl. Due to return to a military court to hear final arguments, he shot and killed his two children, and shot and wounded his wife.
Yet, this story is not unique. At least every couple of months the news media produces stories about a police officer or other such person deemed "competent" to carry firearms, who kills someone, usually his wife.
Before he became the President of the Republic, Jacob Zuma said while addressing the Cape Town Press Club at a city hotel, in 2007 that "At times I say [to myself] why don't we remove the guns from everybody . . . and start afresh."
I would say, now that Zuma is the president of the country, there should be no more contemplating but to make South Africa a gun-free. How many women must die in domestic violence, because there is access to a gun in the house?