In the midst of discourse surrounding a number of xenophobic attacks occurring in South Africa, conversations around femicide and gender-based violence have also been re-sparked. According to official government numbers, about 137 sexual offences are committed a day, and over 30 women were killed by their spouses in the month of August alone. Given that South Africa ranks fourth on a list of countries where interpersonal violence against women is the highest, the government has begun speaking on the issue of femicide and gender-based violence, declaring it a national crisis.
Many have noted that the trend of gender-based violence in South Africa is not a new occurrence. Studies have been conducted to uncover the root causes of why such a high number of gender-based crimes against women and girls are committed. One explanation includes the prominence of patriarchal practices and rhetoric that persist to this day. Another well-cited explanation for gender-based violence is the theory of inherited violence of the apartheid era that has permeated and solidified itself within the very fabrics of South African society. The inherited violence theory speaks not only to the physical, political, and economic violence perpetrated against black South Africans but also to this violence being brought into the home where women were the primary victims.
Today, gender-based violence and femicide continue to plague the country as sexual violence both inside and outside the home are on the rise. These horrendous acts endanger the lives of women, young girls, and members of the LGBTQIA+ community—who are also integral to fighting against and the discourse surrounding sexually-motivated violence—daily, as demonstrated by the number of sexual offences committed each day according to government figures. For example, becoming a national news story was the tragic death of 19-year-old University of Cape Town student Uyinene Mrwetyana who was raped and bludgeoned to death by a post office employee.
A recent study has also attempted to record and understand the recent surge in violent gender-based crimes and murder committed against adolescent girls. The study entitled “Homicide pattern among adolescents: A national epidemiological study of child homicide in South Africa,” states that although adolescent boys are more likely to be a victim of homicide during their formative years, violence against young girls is shown to be experienced at alarming rates as well. The findings further indicate that adolescent girls are more likely to die in the home and at the hands of a family member.
In order to begin thinking about solutions to gender-based violence and femicide, it is necessary to examine the existing legal frameworks in South Africa that target gender-based violence. Kammila Naidoo’s Africa is a Country article describes the pieces of legislation already in place that set rules for the prosecution of these types of crimes in great detail. First, there is the Domestic Violence Act of 1998 which is meant to address intimate partner violence and violence committed by those who have familial ties. The second is the Criminal Laws (Sexual Offenses and Related Matters) Amendment Act of 2007 that defines the specifics of what sexually-motivated crimes look like and covers a wide range of sexual crimes that do not occur in the home or in more intimate settings. Although the government has these laws that govern its response to gender-based crime, Naidoo writes that no matter how robust policy might seem, it becomes inconsequential if not effectively applied.
The women of South Africa, despite facing grave danger, have not been silent on the issue of gender-based violence and thousands have flooded the streets to demand the government make better efforts to take seriously the threat South African women face as a consequence of their gender, address the central causes of gender-based violence, and prosecute offenders to the fullest extent of the law. One woman, Zaida Samuels, interviewed at a protest stated, “Today, we want to ask the local and national government to walk with us.” Their resistance has sent the local and national government a clear message that they have not done nearly enough to vigorously enforce existing laws and have not taken enough preventative measures to ensure that women and members of vulnerable communities such as the LGBTQIA+ community are adequately protected. The fight has also been taken to Twitter with the hashtag “#AmINext” trending which globalized the mobilization around gender-based violence and drew attention to the problem.
Given that the recent events and numerous protests have raised doubts about whether or not the government is doing enough to tackle this issue, President Cyril Ramaphosa promised to strengthen gender-based violence laws by updating the national registry of gender-based violence offenders, said he would ask the parliament to make this registry publicly accessible, stated that there will be 11 new courts to deal specifically with cases of gender-based crime, and he has called for a review of all gender-based cases that have been closed or that were found to have been investigated improperly. However, as protests continue, the government will have to ensure that it sufficiently enforces the existing and forthcoming laws adequately.
There is no doubt that these types of legislation that punish offenders are necessary in terms of bringing justice to victims, but preventative measures must also be taken to hit at the root causes of gender-based violence. There are larger education initiatives that need to be implemented that engage in honest discourse about the prevalence of gender-based violence and begin unravelling the very fabrics of society that perpetuate dangerous tropes and stereotypes about women that might drive some to commit these egregious acts of violence against them. This education initiative would also hopefully spur the conversation about decriminalizing sex work, as many have called for. Because this, too, will be integral in the attempt to curb the occurrence of gender-based violence.
Amnesty International South Africa has further advocated for police officers and investigators to be trained on how to approach the specific issue of gender-based violence “sensitively and objectively,” which will also be important moving forward.
As discourse surrounding the xenophobic attacks in South Africa makes headlines, it is important not to forget the ongoing struggle that women and other vulnerable communities face and the grave danger they may find themselves in at any given time. This is a broader continental and global conversation that is occurring with people taking to the streets in both Uganda and Nigeria to demand that gender-based violence is taken seriously because enough is enough.
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