Policing, judicial reforms are overdue to combat GBV

Protesters against gender-based violence in South Africa. Picture: Leon Lestrade/Independent Newspapers

Protesters against gender-based violence in South Africa. Picture: Leon Lestrade/Independent Newspapers

Published Nov 11, 2023


Dr Zanele Zuma

THE 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children Campaign has long been a crucial one, but its impact remains a subject of considerable debate.

This campaign aims to raise awareness and take action to end violence against women and girls. When examining South Africa’s progress in this fight against gender-based violence (GBV), it is crucial to acknowledge the strides made and the persistent challenges that continue to plague the nation.

The effectiveness of this campaign in curbing GBV in the country still raises questions. Despite significant efforts and increased awareness, violence against women, girls, children, the elderly, members of the LGBTQI+ community and the disability group persists at an alarmingly high rate. While South Africa has implemented various legislative measures and policies to protect women’s rights and combat GBV, the actual enforcement and effectiveness of these measures often fall short.

Over the years, South Africa has grappled with the disturbing occurrence of GBV. Cases of GBV are witnessed in all the facets of life, showing in diverse forms such as physical violence, sexual violence highly prevalent among intimate partners, emotional violence often highly linked to financial independence, emotional and psychological violence that bear far-reaching effects to the individual’s mental state.

Although the 16 Days of Activism has played a vital role in bringing attention to the issue, the progress in terms of tangible change appears limited. According to statistics from various reports and organisations, South Africa continues to face deeply entrenched societal issues that fuel GBV.

According to the South Africa’s Demographic and Health Survey, one in five women over the age of 18 years has experienced violence by a partner. A report by the National Shelter Movement reported a drastic increase in gender-based violence cases during the Covid-19 lockdown, with over 120,000 calls made to the national helpline for GBV during the first three weeks of lockdown. The shockingly high rates of femicide makes South Africa a country with one of the highest rates of femicide globally. The South African Medical Research Council reports that the femicide rate in South Africa is five times higher than the global average. This tells one that GBV remains a critical issue despite the many attempts to curb it. In the 2019/2020 data reports 53,000 reported cases of rape and sexual offence. It can thus be argued that such figures were not a representative of the true occurrences due to under-reporting. There remains a tapestry of factors that hold victims to remain silent, and that is a cause for concern.

The persistent patriarchal norms continue to be a drawback in curbing GBV and not much is done to accentuate the role it can play in curbing GBV. South Africa, like many other societies, grapples with deeply ingrained patriarchal attitudes that contribute to perpetuate GBV. These societal norms continue to reinforce unequal power dynamics between men and women, leading to unjust normalisation of violence against women as well as girls in particular. Cultural attitudes and gender norms deeply embedded in society also perpetuate the cycle of violence. The deep-seated patriarchal system, while being challenged, continue to resist change. Addressing these societal issues may require a multifaceted approach including legal and policy reforms, better support system for survivors, comprehensive education and awareness programmes, and challenging societal norms. The effectiveness in empowering women, addressing systemic issues, and fostering a culture of respect and equality to combat GBV in South Africa can never be overemphasised.

South Africa has witnessed improvement in certain areas such as the implementation of legislative changes, the establishment of various support structures and the establishment of various support structures for the victims. However, such achievements are not enough when compared to the rate at which GBV is rising. These positive steps seem overshadowed by the stark reality on the ground. The level of reported violence against women and children remains unacceptably high. The incidents of femicide, rape, and assault are dishearteningly frequent, painting a bad picture of the prevailing culture of violence. Furthermore, the systemic issues of socio-economic factors exacerbate the problem. The high unemployment rate in South Africa has taken the country aback as it reinforces tolerance of GBV by victims in situations where perpetrators are breadwinners. Poverty, unemployment and inequality contribute to the vulnerability of women and their inability to escape abusive situations.

While the 16 Days of Activism serves as an essential period for raising awareness, it has become evident that a more sustained, multifaceted approach is necessary. Campaigns should not merely serve as symbolic gestures but should be backed by consistent and comprehensive strategies to tackle the root causes of GBV. Education is key in reshaping societal perceptions. It is crucial to instil values of equality, respect, and empathy from a young age.

Neglecting to ingrain these values at an infancy stage of our children may results in continued escalation of GBV cases even at a school level. Over than above this, law-enforcement and the judicial system require significant reform. Ensuring that perpetrators face swift and just consequences is imperative in deterring future acts of violence.

*Dr Zuma is from The School of Public Health at Wits University

**The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of Independent Media or IOL