The 8th of March marks International Women's Day, a global day for celebrating women's achievements and recognise challenges that persist when it comes to achieving gender equality. A reflection of the situation of gender-based violence in South Africa and the strides made on the policy front has brought me to this realisation: We all know someone who is a victim of gender-based violence (GBV). That's how pervasive GBV has become in our society.
Our religious institutions and our workplaces are no strangers to GBV survivors who are dealing with their own experiences in their own way, often in silence without any outward indication of what they are going through. Our homes – the spaces meant to be safe havens and places of refuge for women are instead warzones where the canvass of this war and violence is the body of a woman.
If laws were a panacea for solving all societal ills and problems, then gender-based violence (GBV) in South Africa would be a thing of the past. The long list of laws in South Africa enacted and amended from time to time, to address GBV have proved inadequate on their own to curb the scourge of GBV. In a country with the most progressive and responsive laws to sexual violence, GBV and femicide, it is evident that winning the war against GBV will require an overhaul of systemic and deeply entrenched norms, beliefs and attitudes towards women in particular and violence more broadly.
Public reports and statistics paint a grim picture for us women in South Africa. The country is dubbed the rape capital of the world. Crime statistics for July to September 2021 show that 9 556 people were raped and according to the October to December 2021 statistics, 11 273 women were raped in South Africa. It is estimated by the World Health Organisation that 12.1 in every 100 000 women are victims of femicide in South Africa each year, this is five times higher than the global average of 2.6. The female interpersonal violence death rate is also pegged at the fourth highest out of 183 countries listed in the 2016 WHO report.
As far back as 2017, our report titled Violence against Women in South Africa: A Country in Crisis highlighted that GBV in South Africa has reached crisis proportions necessitated multi-sectoral responses to curb its impacts, sentiments which were echoed by President Cyril Ramaphosa during the November 2018 Presidential Summit on Gender-Based Violence and Femicide. The National Strategic Plan on Gender-Based Violence and Femicide, starts us off on this multi-sectoral response to GBV. However, the biggest gap is one of transforming mindsets, behaviour learned and practised over time as well as attitudes towards women and violence.
GBV is a product and an outcome of deeply entrenched cultural and patriarchal beliefs in society. It does not occur in a vacuum; it is systemic and institutionalised. Like a language, violence is learnt and can be "spoken", the GBV language is disproportionately spoken on the body of a woman. Like any other language, it can be transmitted, normalised and passed down to the next generation. This is evident when the screams of a woman in the middle of the night do not draw a crowd to her doorstep to help trigger a 10111 call to the police to report a possible domestic violence incident.
Women have to go through hoops to report GBV. From mustering enough courage to leave the home for the nearest police station to overcoming her fear of what reporting the incident will mean for her if the abuser is the breadwinner. From the uber driver that an abused woman e-hails to ferry her to the police station to report GBV, to the police officer at the police station who attends to her, and the pastor to whom she reports her abuse, there is no shortage of men appealing to her to forgive her partner, go back home and solve it, begging her not to report him. Our society is also not short of in-laws and parents who turn a blind eye to the abuse in the name of "what will people say when you leave"? Our communities are also not short of women who further entrench abusive and violent behaviour of men, blaming women for "asking for it", judging her instead of helping her. Our very support systems in families, communities and society require this transformation if we are to reduce GBV in South Africa.
Laws written down to address GBV are at most an abstract, whose passing by Parliament and signing by the President remains relatively unknown by the majority of our community members. The existence of laws has not translated to increased reporting of GBV cases at our police stations to kick start the criminal justice process. It is estimated that only one in nine cases of violence against women are actually reported. When families, communities and institutions are constantly dictating that a woman must "endure" and persevere against abuse and violence or that her behaviour must have caused her partner to "lose it", then we are still a long way to go in reducing the scourge of GBV in our homes, communities and society. In 2022, we cannot afford as women to be told that "emshadweni kuyabekezelwa" or that "uma ekushaya kusho uyakuthanda".
If we are to turn the tide against GBV, our focus and investment must prioritise what is believed and what prevails as norms towards women and violence. This starts with probing the motivations, root causes and key drivers of such toxic and abusive belief systems in order to challenge them and offer a counter-narrative. It calls for us to do the heavy lifting work of hearing and listening, sifting through these beliefs to separate fact from myth and accompanying communities and individuals, especially men, on a journey of unlearning those entrenched faulty belief systems and learning new positive ones that render spaces and safe for women. Transformation will also require that we reach out to women survivors of GBV, and start peeling off the layers of their trauma and the negative belief systems they harbour about themselves, accompanying them through a journey of healing through counselling services, and reinforcing their positive belief systems that say "you matter; it was not your fault; you are special; and you did not deserve what happened to you; it was wrong, it was criminal; you deserve better".
We provide counselling support to individuals, families and groups who have experienced Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV), torture and other forms of collective violence. You can contact us on 071 241 1831. Call or send a "please call me" and one of our Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) Practitioners will respond to you.