New intensity in the fight against gender-based violence
Sadly, gender-based violence (GBV) remains deeply rooted in our society, affecting millions of women and girls on a daily basis. As urgency to address the issue increases, the National Summit against Gender-based Violence and Femicide was a critically important intervention, representing a strong commitment towards ending the scourge.
GBV is an issue that has received increasing national and international attention. Despite this, South Africa still suffers levels of rape, abuse and femicide that are well above the global average. According to Statistics South Africa, the murder rate for women increased by 117 percent between 2015 and 2016/17. Over the same period, reported sexual offences against women rose by 53 percent, from 31 655 to 70 813.
It is important to note that GBV extends further than this. It also includes emotional and psychological abuse, meaning that the problem is much more widespread than physical violence alone.
The women of South Africa have steadily been strengthening their resolve, showing that they are unwilling to accept this situation any longer. On 1 August, more than 100 000 women, activists and gender non-conforming people marched to government institutions in all nine provinces, to protest against GBV, under the banner of #TheTotalShutdown.
Other organisations, such as Sonke Gender Justice, People Opposing Women Abuse and many others, have also been demanding swifter and more stringent action in clamping down on GBV.
Government responded to the call by bringing forward the convening of the summit, which was based around 24 demands made in the memorandum handed over to President Cyril Ramaphosa during the #TheTotalShutdown march.
Harrowing stories from survivors
Opening the summit, Minister of Social Development Susan Shabangu said GBV had reached unbearable levels in the country.
“With all the good laws we have passed since 1994 – why are we still in this place today, in a country where women continue to be abused, with daily reports in the newspapers of women raped and of psychological, physical and economic abuse? And, although we live in a democratic space, we have to ask ourselves if women enjoy the same democracy,” she said.
The brutality of GBV was vividly exposed at the start of the summit, as survivors shared their painful personal experiences of abuse.
Phindi Ncube, one of the survivors, was raped by eight men and had to undergo five surgeries on her stomach. She showed her scars to the attendees, including President Ramaphosa.
“I was not born like this. This came as a result of my attackers. I have to carry the scars,” said Ncube, calling for stiff sentences for abusers. “Our lives can’t be paroled, Mr President. The minimum sentence for sex offenders must be at least 50 years,” she urged.
Responding to the crisis
President Ramaphosa took to the stage to reassert government’s commitment to responding to the crisis of GBV.
“Survivors of sexual violence and abuse – be it physical, psychological or economic – often live with these scars for the rest of their lives. The physical and psychological effects may recede, but they very rarely disappear,” noted President Ramaphosa.
“In August, I made a commitment that we shall convene this summit to develop a national plan of action against gender-based violence. We are agreed that we need a multi-sectoral approach that responds to the demands of the marchers and strengthens the broader interventions that address the causes and effects of such violence.”
The President said the societal issues of patriarchy, economic relations and skewed gender relations all need to be addressed in order to eliminate the scourge.
“A society that does not support notions of authority and control over women, and does not tolerate violence against women, is more likely to reduce gender-based violence.”
President Ramaphosa added that government is accelerating a number of interventions, ranging from education at schools, to stricter law enforcement and a complete change of the existing social system of patriarchy.
“[Preventing GBV] requires that we address societal issues of patriarchy, economic relations and changing the way of thinking about gender relations.”
Renewed resolve to end GBV
The most important outcome of the summit was a declaration that reaffirms government’s commitment to a “united, comprehensive and effective response to GBV and femicide”.
Several important commitments have been made by government, based on strict timelines for implementation.
It was agreed that an interim council, comprising various stakeholders, will be established within six months after the summit, to specifically focus on GBV issues. The council will comprise at least 51 percent civil society members.
A National Strategic Plan on GBV and femicide will be developed, along with a social behaviour-change programme that addresses skewed gender relations in the home and society as a whole.
Recognising the importance of adequate facilities for victims, the declaration committed to better resourcing of Thuthuzela Care Centres, shelters and sexual offences courts.
Other interventions include strengthening education on GBV, fast-tracking legislation, implementing recommendations made in various studies and developing new ethical guidelines for the media reporting on GBV.
President Ramaphosa described the declaration as a key milestone in the fight against GBV.
“We are looking to this summit to provide clear direction on a comprehensive national response to gender-based violence. I am convinced that by working together, by confronting difficult issues and by mobilising all South Africans, we shall create a society where women and children feel safe and are safe at all times and in all places,” he said.
Key role-players in fighting for change, civil society organisations such as #TheTotalShutdown were encouraged by the outcomes of the summit, but called for words to be converted into action.
“Although the summit was an important accomplishment, it marks only a first, albeit important, step in the dialogue between government and civil society on GBV. However, the occurrence of GBV-related incidents is at a national crisis, and it requires more than just dialogue but decisive and immediate action to protect womxn [see definition in sidebar] and children,” said Lesley Ncube, National Spokesperson for #TheTotalShutdown.
Sonke Gender Justice Legal Manager Kayan Leung said that the summit had yielded a number of victories, most important of which was the commitment to develop a fully funded National Strategic Plan.
“We are pleased and cautiously optimistic that much of the language and advocacy asks that Sonke and civil society partners have been advocating for over numerous years are included in the declaration issued by the Presidency.”
Leung added that civil society would be a crucial implementing agent.
“While we must celebrate these victories, it is equally important as a civil society collective to take the work forward to ensure that commitments become tangible for everyone. It is important for the content of the declaration to be shared with all communities, including in rural areas. Ongoing work on prevention must continue,” said Leung.
Gender-based violence: Any physical, sexual, emotional or psychological act perpetrated against a person’s will, stemming from gender norms and unequal power relations.
Patriarchy: A system of society or government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it.
Womxn: A word developed by feminists to stress the independence of women, by excluding the word “man or men”.
Femicide: The killing of a woman or girl, in particular by a man and on account of her gender.