Women's share of public and private space still under threat
1 June 2017
Violence against women in South Africa has a long and tragic history.
The recent spike in incidents, including deaths of women and children, remains a sad incitement on the country. It mitigates against a fundamental constitutional imperative to endure a safe and equal society for all, irrespective of gender, race, creed and class.
South Africa is weighed down by a mind-numbing statistic that 40% of women will be raped in their lifetimes. Quibbles about whether a woman is raped every 26 seconds (civil society estimates), versus police estimates of a rape every 36 seconds, must not detract from a crisis that has reached catastrophic proportions.
The academic and research communities, gender activists, community-based organisations and broader civil society have contributed mammoth amounts of intellectual and practical knowledge and action to addressing violence against women. However, the scourge continues unabated.
Statistics on violence against women make for terrifying reading but remain unreliable, due - in the main - to under-reporting. This, borne out of fear/shame, intimidation and a lack of confidence in the criminal justice system, especially in relation to successful convictions of perpetrators of violence.
How then do millions of women in South Africa enjoy the most basic of constitutional rights to equality, human dignity and freedom? All of which are so profoundly amplified in sections 9, 10, 11 and 12 of the Bill of Rights:
Everyone is equal before the law and has the right to equal protection and benefit of the law;
Everyone has the right to dignity;
Everyone has the right to life;
Everyone has the right to freedom and security of the person.
Additionally, the legislative and policy framework in South Africa is abundant in relation to violence against women and children. It ranges from the Domestic Violence Act of 1998, to the Criminal Law Amendment Act 32 of 2007, to the National Framework for the Management of Sexual Offence Matters, as well as the myriad of policies governing conduct of police, courts and multiple government departments.
The presence of an Office on the Status of Women, the Gender Commission, the Human Rights Commission and various gender focal points at local, provincial and national level, broadly constitute government’s architecture for the promotion of women's rights to equality, safety and security, not forgetting 16 Days of Gender Activism. The costly architecture belies a state that pays lip service to foundational constitutional values as it impacts on just over half the population of the country.
Statistics and attitudinal surveys abound about crimes against women and children. A Google search on current and past research into its causes, impacts, and economic and social costs, lists tens of thousands of studies. Yet, crimes against women and children are stubbornly high.
Cue to Minister of Arts and Culture, Mr Nathi Mthethwa, during his parliamentary speech on 23 May 2017. He summed up the current wave of violence against women and children as follows, “…the violence has a long history. Our country was taken by force and it was ruled by force for more than 350 years. Violence is part of the South African DNA and this needs to be combated”.
This statement neatly captures not only the fatalism of a serving minister in the Zuma Cabinet but displaces responsibility to history and biochemistry. The transmission of genetic information in relation to violence against women, on the scale witnessed in South Africa, cannot and must not explain away the current crisis affecting women and children.
Addressing the issue of violence against women in South Africa requires more than a facile reference to violence undergirding the DNA of the country. It requires the political will to prevent violence against women in schools, homes, workplaces and public spaces. It requires a criminal justice system that arrests perpetrators and a judicial system that can, with predictability, prosecute those found guilty. Snatching away the potential of millions of women and children should be top of the agenda. Alas, the leadership of the country is otherwise preoccupied.
Ms Zohra Dawood is Director, Centre for Unity in Diversity