It is imperative that we respond to the national crisis of violence against women and girls by amending legislation related to this scourge and strengthen capacity within the criminal justice system writes Dr Lentsu Nchabeleng

Violence against women and girls is a global pandemic and remains a complex development challenge. It is one of the indispensable issues of social justice and equity. In South Africa, women have been resilient in campaigning to end violence against women and girls.  However, despite numerous attempts, there has been little or no change thus far.

Being a woman in South Africa has proved to be incredibly difficult. The World Health Organization (WHO) reported that South Africa’s rate of femicide for 2015 was 9.6 per 100,000 women, making it four times that of the global average.

Last week the department of women, youth and persons with disabilities launched the 16 Days of No Violence Against Women and Children. This year’s campaign was launched under the theme Women’s Economic Justice for a Non Violent and Non Sexist South Africa. It runs from November 25 to December 10.

In 2016, South Africa had the fourth highest female interpersonal violence death rate out of the 83 countries listed by the WHO. To add insult to injury, the conviction rate for cases on violence against women and girls is abysmal.

The South African Police Service has been accused of secondary victimisation of rape victims and negativity towards the conviction process. The poor treatment of rape victims and the perception of lenient sentencing could tacitly give the impression of “decriminalisation of rape”.

For a country with high levels of violence against women and girls and femicide, this cannot be permitted.

I am cognisant of the fact that violence against women and girls is not only a legal issue but a complex interplay of factors that act at individual, relationship and societal level, driven by social and political forces.

Minister of Police Bheki Cele speaks during the launch of the 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children. The author calls for stringent action by police in cases of abuse of women and children. Photo: GCIS

In South Africa, gender norms and discrimination have been consistently reported as key drivers of violence against women and girls. It comes as no surprise as the roots of patriarchy run so deep in the fabric of our society to such as extend that most women consider it to be a normal way of life.

There is an urgent need to rectify this. In order for us to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 5- gender equality and empowerment of all women and girls, we need to reach these women and change their perception in order to combat the perpetuation of this discriminatory practice.

With just under 10 years left to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, this action must be more than a political rhetoric, it must become a tangible reality for all women and girls around the world.

However, this reality appears to be an illusion as the recent outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened gender inequality. The effects of the lockdown has disproportionately affected women. In South Africa, women carry the unequal burden of social, cultural and economic ills.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this. In the first seven days of the lockdown, over 2000 complaints of gender-based violence were made to the South African Police Service. These cases of violence against women and girls reflect the lack of safety women experience, the constant fear they live in and the danger they are exposed to.

It has become evident that the female body itself is a prominent site of violence. Prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, South Africans were inundated by media and police reports of the horrific and senseless murder, rape and maiming of women in their homes and communities.

The 2018 Global Peace Index revealed that South Africa is one of the most violent places in the world, ranked 38 out of 163; with one of the highest murder rates found globally outside of a war zone.

It is therefore imperative that we respond to this national crisis by amending legislation related to violence against women and girls and strengthen capacity within the criminal justice system to address all impunity, effectively respond to femicide and facilitate justice.

We also need to shift away from toxic social norms that perpetuate the social, economic and psychological burden on women. We need to re-evaluate how society has neglected a feminist perspective to respond and end violence against women and girls.

Applying a feminist approach to response and prevention programmes on violence against women and girls is important because gender inequality is an underlying driver of violence against women and girls, and feminist approaches aims to empower women and girls, as well as challenge prevailing inequalities through research.

Economic empowerment remains the most important contributing factor to achieving gender equality. There is a need to accelerate initiatives that address women’s unequal economic and social position through employment, housing, financial resources, income generating activities and access to land. Radical economic transformation with the full inclusion and empowerment of women is a step in the right direction.

Eradicating violence against women and girls should be identified as an indicator for achieving development in general, and the Sustainable Development Goal 5 on gender equality. It is our collective responsibility to progress the advancement, emancipation and most importantly the protection of women and girls in South African society.

*Dr Lentsu Nchabeleng academic qualifications :PhD (2018, Durban University of Technology); MA (2020, University of KwaZulu-Natal-Natal); MTech (2013, Durban University of Technology); BA Cons (2016, University of KwaZulu-Natal-Natal); BTech (2009, Cape Peninsula University of Technology); Diploma (2008, Durban University of Technology)

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