Violence Against Women Under The Spotlight In South Africa

In the words of President Cyril Ramaphosa, this has been a ‘dark and shameful week’ for South Africa. On June 1st, the government relaxed restrictions on COVID-19 lockdown rules. Since then, the horrific murders of numerous women have sent shock waves across the country. A list of more than 400 women killed by men has now gone viral on social media. From Tshegofatso Pule, who was 8-months pregnant when she was stabbed in the stomach and hanged from a tree, to Naledi Phangindawo, stabbed in her car by her ex-boyfriend, these cases of gender-based violence (GBV) have raised uncomfortable questions about the role misogyny, violence and alcohol abuse in South African society.

In a speech, Ramaphosa directly linked changes in lockdown rules to the rise in violence against women. He stated that ‘violent men are taking advantage’ of the COVID-19 crisis to ‘attack women and children’. Evidence from the South African Police Service (SAPS) supports this claim. It announced a definitive increase in violent crime, especially murders, since the country entered the newest version of lockdown. However, the issue of gender-based violence is not new to South Africa. Miranda Jordan, of Woman and Men against Child Abuse (WMACA), told the Daily Maverick that ‘femicide is a rampant disease that is festering in our society’. She, along with President Ramaphosa, argued that South Africans need to do more to identify and root out the causes of this violence.

COVID 19’s Role in the Crisis

Two factors seem to have fuelled South Africa’s latest wave of violence against women. President Ramaphosa noted in his speech that lockdown has acted as a lightning rod for men to take their anger out on their children and partners. Job losses and social isolation have caused frustrations at home to boil over. Women trapped with their abusers have had no escape from the consequences of this anger. This cocktail of constant proximity and male rage was a disaster waiting to happen. The tripling of calls to GBV hotlines in just the first five days of lockdown was proof of this. Changes to lockdown only seem to have only heightened this problem by allowing men to channel this fury at women outside their household.

The re-opening of liquor stores after the relaxation of lockdown restrictions has also made matters worse. 60% of adult South Africans consider themselves binge drinkers and many have abused the return of alcohol sales following a nine week ban. Since the policy change on June 1st, alcohol has played a part in the majority of trauma cases in units in hospitals. Julius Malema, leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters Party, believes alcohol has also contributed to increasing violence against women and would lead to more ‘mass-deaths’ in the coming weeks. He argued that the only way to stop this ‘physical abuse’ of women at the hands of ‘intoxicated men’ would be to ban alcohol for good. Whether a permanent ban would be effective is debatable, but what is clear is that the combination of domestic abuse and alcohol-fuelled violence has had catastrophic consequences for women.

A Historic Social Problem

As Miranda Jordan said, South Africa’s new COVID-19 reality cannot explain the recent cases of femicide alone. Studies from 10 months ago revealed that a woman is killed every three hours in South Africa. This is five times the world average. Many of these women are raped and assaulted before their deaths. Clearly, gender-based violence has been an epidemic in South Africa since long before the COVID-19 outbreak.

Back in 2018, a government-commissioned report by Statistics South Africa claimed that the ‘killing of females simply because they are females is rare’. However, the government’s latest language suggests that it has changed its position. The demographics of the victims of violence certainly suggest misogynistic motives. According to Ramaphosa, 51% of women have experienced violence at the hands of their partner. These are some of the highest domestic abuse numbers in the world. Some women have also been attacked for their sexual orientation. 16-year-old Liyabona Mabishi, a lesbian, was stabbed 13 times on 21 March. LBGTQI activist Kirvan Fortuin was murdered in similarly horrific fashion just days ago. Mounting public pressure has meant the South African government can no longer ignore the clear patterns of bigotry and sexism behind gender-based violence. As President Ramaphosa stated over the weekend, the government now refuses to be ‘complicit’ in the ‘climate of silence’ that allows these attacks to happen.

Women have been the victims of the government’s handling of COVID-19 and historic social trends. One positive from recent developments is that increasing public concern over GBV has made it impossible for the government to continue to downplay the issue. While the ANC had pledged to take steps to tackle GBV in the past, hopefully now it has no option but to follow through on these previously empty promises.