65 years ago in South Africa, a group of 20 000 women marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria on 9 August 1956. It was a historic moment - the women were protesting against a proposed amendment to what was known as the Urban Areas Act which endorsed legislation that required black South Africans to carry an identity book known as the 'pass.' 

After handing over a petition to South African government representatives the women broke into song and since then the phrase 'wathint' abafazi, wathint' imbokodo' (You Strike a Woman, You Strike a Rock) has come to universally represent the courage and strength of South African women. 

South Africa has come a long way since 9 August 1956. We have progressed from having oppressive laws that severely limited women’s rights, to the situation today where women occupy powerful positions in government, business and their communities. The rights of women are also recognized in a number of key legal documents, including -

  • the South African Constitution and Bill of Rights; 
  • the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol); and
  • the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). 

However, while we celebrate these and other achievements advancing women’s social, political and economic status, we must frankly recognize South Africa’s continued problem with unacceptably high rates of femicide, gender-based violence (GBV) and other violent crimes committed against women and children. 

World Health Organisation statistics show South Africa’s femicide rate to be at 12.1 per 100,000 women - this is five times higher than the global average of 2.6 women per 100,000. Statistics South Africa has also reported that 138 women per 100,000 were raped in the country during 2018 - the highest rate in the world. 

In 2020 - during the height of national lockdown - president Cyril Ramaphosa remarked that GBV had become South Africa’s second pandemic. He said that “he was appalled at what is no less than a war being waged against the women and children of our country - the killing of women and children by the men of our country”. The president added that “at a time when the Covid-19 pandemic has left us all feeling vulnerable and uncertain, violence is being unleashed on women and children with a brutality that defies comprehension”. 

In response, the government has commissioned and published the Emergency Response Action Plan on Gender-Based Violence and Femicide (ERAP, 2020) to “address the systemic failure to respond to Gender-Based Violence and Femicide (GBVF) firstly by the state and then more broadly by society. The plan seeks to urgently address the GBVF crisis with agility, responsiveness and capability to fast-track, monitor and assess potential and actual impact of all action taken during its implementation”. 

It further states that “ERAP initiatives are leveraged to promote more equitable and representative multi-stakeholder processes; resulting in outcomes that take into account the genuine and pressing concerns of all partners - which means greater and more effective positive impacts on the lives of their beneficiaries, their households and communities, and ultimately for the nation”. 

Further to the above, government reprioritized R1.6 billion in funding to support the implementation of the ERAP. Flowing from this the president also reported that a number of further steps have been taken:

  • During the lockdown period survivors of gender-based violence had access to support and services, including the GBV hotline, shelters, and centres providing support to victims of sexual violence;
  • Since December 2019, 10 government-owned buildings have been handed over to the Department of Social Development to be used as shelters, addressing one of the biggest challenges facing survivors who want to leave abusive relationships;
  • Thirteen regional courts have been upgraded into specialized sexual offences courts;
  • To support the work of law-enforcement, 7,000 evidence collection kits have been distributed regularly to every police station in the country and there are now over 1,000 survivor friendly rooms at police stations;
  • Many police, prosecutors, magistrates and policymakers have undergone sensitivity and awareness training, and over 3,000 government employees who work with children and mentally disabled persons have been checked against the National Register of Sex Offenders; and
  • Legislative amendments have been prepared around, among other things, minimum sentencing in cases of gender-based violence, bail conditions for suspects, and greater protection for women who are victims of intimate partner violence.

Despite the above, Police Minister Beki Cele announced during September 2020 that “only 130 of the 4058 people arrested for alleged gender-based violence (GBV) since the announcement of the lockdown in March 2020, had been convicted”. In August 2020 Cele said that since April 2020, 21 203 cases of domestic violence had been reported and 14 779 suspects had been charged.

These figures indicate that South Africa still has a long way to go in addressing and eradicating this serious societal problem. However, it is not only the government that is responsible for addressing the problem. All South Africans should make a contribution in their daily lives by treating women with respect they deserve; by acknowledging the full spectrum of their rights and by shifting patriarchal attitudes. 

On Women’s Day 2021 all South Africans should honour the memory of those who have sacrificed so much in advancing women’s social, political and economic status in South Africa. In doing so we should all support the ERAP and President Ramaphosa’s efforts to combat the scourge of GBV.  

However, combating GBV will be greatly facilitated if we can, at the same time, address the social and economic crises that lie at the root of so many of our national problems: poor education; unsustainable unemployment; inadequate policing; endemic corruption; failing service delivery; and the absence of high levels of sustainable economic growth. 

Only in this way will we ultimately be able to achieve - not only the goal of gender equality - but also all the other goals that are set out in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

By Adv Jacques du Preez, CEO of the FW de Klerk Foundation

7 August 2021


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