We have celebrated this Women’s Month in the peak of COVID-19’s parallel pandemic whose effects cut across every aspect of society. Women, children, persons with disabilities, LGBTQIA+ (lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, trans-sexual, queer, intersex, a-sexual+) and other vulnerable persons are not spared but are more unsafe as gender-based violence and femicide (GBVF) exceeds international averages.
Among others, recent widespread media reports of GBVF against women and children include the alleged horrific murder of a wife by her husband in KwaZulu-Natal, the murder and maiming of a final year law student by her boyfriend in East London, sexual assault offences at the University of Cape Town; a father who murdered his children in Limpopo; a policeman who killed his wife in Mpumalanga, to name a few. These gruesome incidents epitomise our unsafe communities amidst an unsafe and difficult environment resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Turning this fatal tide requires intentional collaboration in effectively implementing crime prevention strategies to ensure community safety by key stakeholders through strong partnerships between government’s community safety departments, community members, private sector, media and civil society. These efforts need to be integrated and led by a committed team that is GBVF sensitive and action oriented.
Supported by United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and implemented by a consortium led by the Centre for Communication Impact, the Masiphephe Network has facilitated a series of multi-stakeholder provincial policy dialogues in Mpumalanga, KZN and Gauteng. The themed GBVF dialogues explore the scope and diverse underlying and complex risks to safety in our communities to inform concrete recommendations in comprehensive policy briefs that should be key resources for redressing the GBVF scourge.
GBVF in the face of a pandemic.
Since March 2020, South Africa experienced high levels of GBVF resulting in the second pandemic. The latest quarterly crime statistics reveal even higher increases in reported sexual
offenses by 74% at 12 702 from 7 296 during the same period in 2020; and from 12 133 (574 more cases) from January to March 2021. The cumulative 2020 to 2021 quarterly crime statistics indicated a total of 46 447 sexual offences as 9 518 people were raped between January and March 2021. Women and children are the prey for GBVF perpetrators.
Homes have become unsafe places where victims are trapped with their perpetrators in one place. Existing data shows that the national lockdowns exacerbated GBVF cases yet, with low reporting. During the stringent lockdown measures, the Department of Social Development GBV Command Centre saw a three-fold increase in the number of reports from 54 849 in 2019/20 to 157 952 in 2020/21.
The Department of Health also revealed cumulative sexual assault cases of about 36 363 in 2020/21 financial year. These numbers suggest that the pandemic impacts on the survivor’s ability to report incidents or seek help at police stations, psycho-social support services, to elders or community leaders with support of close trusted friends and relatives. At the same time, it escalated existing structural problems that are regarded as drivers of GBVF such as income perspectives, unemployment, poverty, and traumatic emotional strain. In this pandemic, homes have turned to unpleasant places for many women.
The COVID-19 tracker shows that most women live in fear. Research such as that done by Ask Afrika reveals that the unbanning of alcohol has fuelled women’s fears of GBV cases. Such lockdown measures with restricted movements raise a sharp focus on barriers that GBV victims face and challenge efforts to increase access to justice and other support measures such as shelters, test kits and DNA testing.
The sad reality
Despite high levels of GBV incidents, the sad reality is that many of these cases are undocumented, underreported and not counted in the national statistics. Women and children in our communities are silenced and unsafe. There is an emerging trend of withdrawal of domestic violence cases. Circumstances for withdrawal include among others the financial and emotional burden of following a case, pressures from the society, family, and perpetrators. GBV victims need support to access the justice system. The recent case of three cops who allegedly requested a R25 000 bribe to make rape charges disappear in Mpumalanga, is a perfect example of failing law enforcement. The anecdotal evidence demonstrates police solicited bribes from GBV complainants to push their cases forward.
Law enforcement and all statutory role players within the criminal justice system are mandated by various legislation, national instructions and guidelines that promote crime prevention and safety, to provide safety to all women, children, and vulnerable groups. However with the DNA backlogs and pending cases, the justice system is truly failing victims of GBV.
There is a need to create strong community safety programmes that empower women, children and vulnerable persons in communities to speak up. They must be given tools to feel safe, protected and supported. Sensitivity in GBVF decision-making is critical. GBV programme sensitization on the extent viz the prevalence and severity of GBV at individual, community and economic levels is key to doing things differently to redress GBV from policy to effective implementation.
Civil society, government and the private sector need more proactive responses to flatten the acutely soaring curve of this country’s second pandemic. Similar urgency and messaging given and resourced in managing the spread of COVID-19 and the vaccination programme, needs to be given towards community safety to reduce GBVF.
There is a need to broadly identify key and specific interventions to address wider challenges women, children and vulnerable groups face regarding safety and security in their communities. Targeted interventions that focus on respect for humankind, human dignity, and human rights among people; the fear of crime with understanding on the legal and morale consequences of such criminal acts is important. Extra-ordinary discussions on positive masculinity in resocialisation of men and boys who dominate as perpetrators to respect intimate partners, women, and all persons. These efforts should include increased GBVF advocacy by well-resourced role players who can mobilise safety forums, marches, safety corners as well as increase shelters and awareness around the country.
GBVF data is fragmented, and most organisations operate in silos. There is a need to gather accurate information on GBV patterns at each community level for informed and targeted prevention and response efforts in those areas. Community members should partake in building safer places in their communities, they should engage with the various government departments, civil society, local media, and the public sector as they get involved in community safety structures to develop relevant community safety programmes. Technology based approaches can be used in community safety audits and also to assist in the mapping process at a local level.
The end to the GBVF pandemic is still uncertain as the country experiences unacceptable acts of violence committed on girls, women, persons with disabilities, LGBTQIA+ and other vulnerable persons on a day-to-day basis. This is the time to integrate effective responses at both the local and national levels.
Break the silence, call 0800 428 428 (GBV Command Centre) to report and get GBV support.
The Masiphephe Network is a community-based gender-based violence (GBV) prevention and response partners across three provinces in South Africa. We believe that GBV is the grave consequence of complex social and structural problems in our country and the world. Funded by the USAID, our programme encourages inclusive GBV interventions through behaviour change, building awareness and supportive multi-sectoral partnerships to shift the social norms of gender and GBV. Our views are informed by community engagements and recommendations.