Talking about gender-based violence is not enough

The latest crime statistics show that more than 900 women in South Africa were killed in just three months. Activists say a holistic approach is needed to halt these murders.

Women in South Africa dying violent deaths, often at the hands of their loved ones, occurs with sickening regularity. Just days ago Nozipho Tshem, 72, was killed by her son with a hammer in KwaNobuhle, Eastern Cape, mere hours before dying himself. 

Earlier in February, Gauteng nurse Lebogang Monene, 36, was gunned down in the parking lot of Tembisa Hospital, allegedly by her policeman partner. A Daveyton mother, Kgomotso Sekhwela, 27, died after her car was set alight on 13 September during an attack outside her child’s crèche. Her boyfriend has been charged with the murder.

According to the crime statistics for the period October to December 2021, 902 women were murdered, with 232 of these murders directly linked to domestic violence. During the same time, 11 315 rape cases were reported, which on average translates to 123 cases a day. While there was a 9% decrease in sexual offences, the statistics often do not reflect the real situation because such cases are under-reported.

Sexual violence researcher Gorata Chengeta says gender-based violence does not occur in a vacuum and the statistics need to be read alongside other relevant data to understand its causes as well as the reasons behind changes in the number of cases.

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“Due to the nature of such offences, only a minority of them are reported to the police. We take statistics, whether they are positive or negative, with a grain of salt, knowing that they alone cannot explain the shifts in reported cases and that it is always important to understand the why behind any changes,” she says.

In 2021, Statistics South Africa released a report, Crimes Against Women in South Africa, indicating that one in five women (21%) had experienced physical violence by a partner. In 2015, South Africa’s femicide rate was nearly four times that of the global figure, while a woman was killed every four hours in South Africa in 2016. At least half of them were murdered by an intimate partner.

The murder of Karabo Mokoena, 22, who was killed by her partner in his Sandton apartment in 2017, was said to have been done so that his business would prosper. His sentencing in May 2018 came two days after student Zolile Khumalo, 21, was murdered in her university residence in Durban. Her killer could not accept her ending their relationship. 

In yet another disturbing case, the heavily pregnant Tshegofatso Pule, 28, was found hanging from a tree in Durban Deep, Roodepoort, in June 2020. Acting Judge Stuart Wilson reserved judgment in the case against the alleged mastermind of the murder, her married boyfriend Ntuthuko Shoba. Shoba will be back in court on 4 March when the defence will apply to reopen the case before judgment is delivered. A hitman who carried out the murder was given a 20-year sentence last year.

Financial dependency

Women, and African women in particular, are the most affected by unemployment in South Africa, rendering them economically vulnerable and open to abuse. Statistics show that financial dependence plays a role in domestic violence and often causes women to return to their abusive partners. 

“Where the perpetrator and victim are in a romantic relationship, victims are often unable to leave because they are financially dependent on the perpetrator,” says Chengeta. “Gender-based violence cannot be fought without us also fighting to address economic inequality in the country. At the moment, civil society actors and activist groups are calling for an increase of the R350 social relief of distress grant and for a wider basic income grant to be instituted as soon as possible. If implemented, such measures could contribute to addressing sexual violence, in that they would lessen the economic vulnerability of marginalised groups and enable victims to escape cycles of violence.”

In his maiden budget speech on 23 February, Minister of Finance Enoch Godongwana allocated R44 billion to extend the much-needed social relief of distress grant, but he cautioned that a basic income grant was not on the cards.

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Announcing the latest crime statistics on 18 February, Minister of Police Bheki Cele attributed the decrease in sexual offences, especially rape cases, to the government’s awareness campaigns. But experts say this is purely a public relations exercise and far more needs to be done to tackle the problem.

Thandiwe McCloy, communications manager of People Opposing Women Abuse (POWA), says it is vital to educate young children about gender equality so that they know from an early age that boys and girls are equals. More investment in programmes targeted at men is also important.

“These programmes could go a long way in assisting men to deal with their behavioural issues, manage conflict in healthier ways and change their mindsets for the better,” says McCloy.

South Africa’s drinking population ranks high globally in terms of alcohol consumption and worse when it comes to harmful patterns of drinking and heavy binge drinking. “There is evidence that heavy drinking or frequent drinking by males, who are mostly perpetrators of gender-based violence, increases the risk of violence,” says McCloy. “Heavy drinking increases aggressive behaviour, lack of control and the risk of committing acts of domestic violence and sexual violence.”

Words versus acts

Given Sigauqwe, communications manager at Sonke Gender Justice, says it’s easy to speak of policies to combat gender-based violence but their implementation is lacking. “The stats just prove that the implementation of programmes that prevent violence in the first place is very urgent. I’m not a statistics person – one woman is too many. Civil society has been calling for the implementation of the national strategic plan on gender-based violence and femicide. I can confirm that the government acknowledged the document as a policy, but it’s now close to a year since and it’s still not implemented.”

In his state of the nation address on 10 February, President Cyril Ramaphosa finally got to mention gender-based violence in the last 10 minutes of his speech. He said the plan, along with other measures to empower women, would be implemented this year to promote accountability and support survivors.

On a positive note, Ramaphosa announced the launch last year of a Gender-Based Violence and Femicide Response Fund to fight this scourge. According to its website, it is “the first step in a holistic approach that aims to coordinate financial resources to support relevant programmes and campaigns that will raise awareness, lead to mass action, and result in behavioural change”.

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Also, three new pieces of legislation were signed into law in January, including amendments to the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Act, the Criminal and Related Matters Amendment Act and the Domestic Violence Amendment Act, which introduces online applications for protection orders against perpretrators of domestic violence.

“The laws, among a variety of issues, expand the scope of the National Register for Sex Offenders to include the particulars of all sex offenders and not only sex offenders against children and people who are mentally disabled. They also increase the time that a sex offender’s particulars must remain on the register before they can be removed,” explains McCloy.According to Cele, the work of the police’s family violence, child protection and sexual offences unit has led to 272 life sentences for criminals guilty of crimes committed against women and children since April last year.

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