MS Risk Blog

South Africa’s wave of gender-based violence in the age of coronavirus

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Amidst one of the deadliest pandemics in a generation that has forced the entire world to pause, the nation of South Africa finds itself unable to put a pause on the ongoing shameful phenomenon of gender-based violence. South Africa is steeped in a history of gender-based violence towards women which is rooted in outdated beliefs about women and is also a legacy of apartheid that has left the country with a culture of violence. This legacy from the struggle against apartheid has meant that in some spheres violence was seen as a legitimate means of resolving social, political and even domestic conflicts.

President Ramaphosa acknowledged that South Africa was one of the most unsafe places in the world to be a woman, in where as many as 51% of women in South Africa have experienced violence at the hands of someone they were in a relationship with. In September 2019, Ramaphosa admitted the country was in a national crisis of violence against women, as protestors took to the streets for a third successive day in the wake of a string of brutal attacks against women, including rape and murder. The government has made attempts to change the culture of gender-based violence by focusing on South Africa’s men, in addition to allotting more resources and money to special crimes courts, places of safety, clinics for survivors of sexual assault and training for the police. However, in the face of one of the world’s strictest lockdowns, the safety of women has once again become a central topic for national debate. Some of the rules of lockdown have meant movement from one location to another required a permit, which has meant victims of domestic violence were not able to leave their abusers, further exposing them to danger. Other victims were stopped by the police and ordered to go back home.

The exposure to danger that disproportionately affects women during lockdown in South Africa has once again been brought to the foreground by the recent murders of Tshegofatso Pule, Naledi Phangindawo and Sanele Mfaba. Tshegofatso, who went missing on 4 June 2020 and later found dead four days later, was eight months pregnant when found stabbed and hanging from a tree. Naledi is reported to have been murdered on 6 June 2020 after succumbing to multiple wounds caused by an axe and knife, allegedly at the hands of her partner. Sanele is reported to have been murdered by her boyfriend on 12 June 2020 and thereafter dumped under a tree in Soweto, Johannesburg. Theses heinous crimes prompted president Ramaphosa on 13 June 2020, to acknowledge that South Africa had become more dangerous for women during lockdown, while several protestors took to the streets and social media to demand justice for the victims. In the last year more than 2900 women were murdered in South Africa. Before the lockdown an average of 100 rapes were reported every day and experts say that this is just a fraction of what is going on. The implementation of a blanket lockdown that did not seem to take into account the increased risk to women where more than half of the female population has experienced violence from a partner, is  a damaging oversight that highlights the case for why gender-based violence needs to be more of a national priority in line with economic and other social concerns. Ramaphosa’s acknowledgement that women were at increased danger during lockdown in the absence of adequate provisions to counter said danger is little but empty sentiment when lives are being lost.

According to some frontline organisations, the cases of rape under the pandemic have increased although there has not been an equivalent addition of needed resources such as PPE and the continuation of vital programmes. In some cases, the management of the spread of coronavirus has taken so much precedence that some of the programmes aimed at addressing issues related to gender-based violence have had to be put on hold, meaning that violence could go unchecked. The pressures against national resources that the pandemic has caused have been noticeable in almost every activity of social, political and economic life, however what is also emergent is that gender-based violence has not taken a pause while the country and the world fight the coronavirus. The current statistics on gender-based violence during the pandemic concur with Ramaphosa’s own assessment that violent men are taking advantage of the eased restrictions on movement to attack women and children. Further to this, the startling correlation between the lifting of the alcohol-ban on 1 June 2020 certainly does create a need for the South African government to take further steps in addressing the issue of alcohol and substance abuse which have been historically closely linked with violent and criminal activity. During the first two months of the lockdown when alcohol was banned some hospitals reported a 70% reduction in trauma admissions. The damning exposure of violence against women during the age of coronavirus demonstrates that more must be done to enforce accountability. The pledge made by Ramaphosa in September 2019, to provide $75 million to strengthen the criminal justice system and provide better care for victims in one step among many in the right direction. However, the pandemic has exposed the urgency of the national issue is one that is equally as pressing as the pandemic. The recovery package of the country will also have to consider further protections and resources for gender-based violence and clear accountability that leads to deterrence and prevention, because the lack of resources and state provisions to help victims has in part lead to further endangerment. The issue of gender-based violence in South Africa is widespread and deeply entrenched within institutions, cultures and traditions in where the balance of power predominantly lies with men, countering this will require a courageous dismantling of the status-quo from various approaches and wider engagement that incorporates both top-down and bottom-up solutions.