Gender based violence (GBV) is a serious menace which has led to the death of girls and women in South Africa. The emergence of the novel corona virus which led to total lockdown worldwide has escalated the surge in GBV and femicide in South Africa. The New York Times has reported that women are being abused and murdered globally mostly by people close to them since the start of COVID-19 lockdown. In South Africa, The National Education, Health, and Allied Workers’ Union, noted that GBV has escalated by 500 percent during the COVID-19 lockdown. This was buttressed by South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa’s statement in his address to the nation during the lockdown. He was particularly worried over the growing cases of GBV against women and children. Foundation for Human Rights has condemned the persistent increase in the reported cases of GBV even in the face of COVID-19 pandemic. The Foundation was concerned that GBV is having a negative impact on the health, security and safety of thousands of women in South Africa. The South African Police Services confirmed in the recent statistics that a woman is murdered every three hours and during the first week of the lockdown, receiving more than 87,000 GBV calls and that about 120,000 GBV victims had rung the South African National helpline. Of particular interest is the decomposing body of Sibongiseni Gabada that was chopped into pieces and hidden inside a sports bag, murder of three young women, Tshegofatso Pule, an 8 month pregnant mother found hanging from a tree, with bruises on her chest showing she was also stabbed with a knife, Sanele Mfaba who was dumped by a tree in a Soweto township while Naledi Phangindawo was stabbed to death. All these happened after the lifting of alcohol sales ban on 1st of June 2020. This insinuates that most men misbehave under the influence of alcohol. These are a few of the very many cases that were reported; many of these GBV went unnoticed or never reported. The perpetrators of GBV may be family members, friends, intimate partners, organisation and on rare occasions, strangers. The COVID-19 lockdown which prevented physical association has limited the perpetrators of GBV to intimate partner and family members only. Report by African Check has shown that South Africa has the highest level of intimate partner violence in the world, with 51 percent of women experiencing violence in their relationship. Though the statistics of sexual assaults in South Africa is limited because many of such cases are not always reported because of fear of victimization and stigmatization, the scourge has continued to increase tremendously during COVID-19 lockdown. This was further aggravated two weeks after the end of a nine-week ban on alcohol sales on 1st of June 2020. The South African President had to tag this period “dark and shameful week” because the week was linked to an increase in rapes and killings of women. According to Times Live, South Africa, Police Minister Bheki Cele during the COVID-19 lockdown confirmed the arrest of a police officer that raped his wife. African Check, also reported that the South African Police Services, received more than 2,300 complaints of GBV, during the early stage of COVID-19 lockdown.
In many instances, GBV often leads to serious physical, psychological health problems, depression and sometimes death. Sometimes, victims and survivors of GBV are unable to get the help they need due to lack of access to psychosocial expert or medical support that can help them get over the trauma and continue their normal lifestyle to the slow response of their plight by the law enforcement agencies and re-traumatization of victims when they report cases in court. Families and loved ones of survivors also get traumatized and so may not be able to help the victims get adequate support they need. Efforts are in top gear by the South African government and some civil society organizations to reduce GBV at all cost, most especially during this COVID-19 lockdown but it requires the cooperation of all in this regard.
So then, why are GBV incidences on the increase in South Africa?
Victims were trapped with their abusers during COVID-19 lockdown: During the lockdown, most women who became victims of the GBV were trapped with their abusers and had no means of escaping. Some were forcefully raped and those who failed to yield to the desires of their abusers were stabbed and murdered. Population-based surveys have shown that most of these abusers are family members, intimate partners and spouses. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the number of women murdered by intimate partners in South Africa is five times higher than the global average of murder cases of women reported.
Influence of alcohol: Report by Quartz Africa showed that after the lifting of the ban on the sales of alcohol on the 1st of June 2020, there was a rapid surge in rapes and killings of women in South Africa. There were so many murder cases reported during this period. This implies that alcohol consumption has a way of aggravating the abuser’s behavior. South Africa’s police minister Hon. Bheki Cele attested to the fact that the ban on alcohol sales was very helpful in lowering the overall crime rates during the country’s coronavirus lockdown including GBV. Therefore, there should be a proper regulation on alcohol sales to check the alarming increase in crimes and murder rate.
Loss of job: COVID-19 lockdown greatly affected some daily paid jobs such as transport business, traders and casual workers. This imposed temporary hardship on such people which culminated into depression and frustrations. Many transferred their frustrations and aggression on anyone around them including family members thus resulting into physical and sexual abuse.
Idleness: People had to work from home during COVID-19 lockdown in order to keep business and official matters running. Unfortunately, there are some work that cannot be done through online processes and require physical presence. Their lack of engagement in any activities resulted into idleness coupled with wrong associations. This makes such people agents of physical or sexual abuse.
Lack of confidence in criminal justice system: Victims and survivors of GBV are reluctant to report some of the cases to the appropriate quarters because they believe agencies in charge of criminal justice are failing in their responsibilities due to the slow responsiveness to criminal activities and GBV. In response to this, the South African president, in the wake of this shenanigans, encouraged a synergy between the community and the police force.
The above factors must be mitigated against if gender-based violence is to be curbed.
How then can we prevent gender based violence?
Firstly, the laws against gender-based violence should be reviewed with serious sanctions. This will ensure that perpetrators are properly dealt with and also serve as a deterrent to other people engaging in such nefarious act against humanity.
Secondly, parents should show and teach love to their children and discourage violence and divisive utterances that connotes dominance of male gender over the female within the family and society at large. More emphasis should be placed on gender equality between boys and girls and there must be mutual respect for the female gender in the society.
Thirdly, there should be more of non-governmental organizations (NGO) and advocacy groups with the sole purpose of creating awareness about how gender equality can be respected by everyone in the society. Some of their duties should include clamoring for the eradication of lopsided remuneration for women, war against biased laws relating to property rights, adequate care after divorce or widowhood, inheritance and so on.
Fourthly, efforts should be made by the government to completely eradicate child or forced marriage in accordance to TARGET 5.3 of The Sustainable Development Goal on gender equality to eliminate all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation.
Fifthly, there should be mass public education campaigns to ensure the safety of women when they find themselves in extremely dangerous situations involving rape and physical assault. The society at large should be sensitized and if possible rewarded for reporting any case of gender-based violence in their community to the appropriate authorities. This is because only few of the numerous cases are always reported. Also, there must be policies that will ensure that the identity of the victims are treated with utmost confidentiality.
Sixthly, neighborhood watch group or a community patrol (in collaboration with the police) should be strengthened in terms of modern gadgets and good remuneration in order to boost their self-confidence in monitoring the rate of GBV in our community. This is because neighbors and house mates of victims may not be able to report cases of GBV due to fear of been victimized. These watch groups assigned to various communities in each province will help to put perpetrators in check.
Seventhly, severe sanctions should be meted out against licensed fire arm owners who abuse this privilege and perpetrate acts of violence in the society such as the case of GBV.
Eighthly, there should be provision of adequate police training or orientation on GBV and how to handle sensitive cases that involve GBV, while establishing independent GBV-specific units at police stations where women and girls can feel safe to report any incidences without the fear of being intimidated.
Lastly, sponsoring the education of women survivors of GBV and ensuring easy access to psychosocial and medical support that can help them heal and recover from the trauma and continue with their life. This can help in their post trauma phase of their recovery process and also encourage other victims to speak up and report cases of GBV to the appropriate authorities.
In conclusion, discrimination against women and girls in every sectors of the society in South Africa must be highly discouraged. Every hand must be on deck to end this ravaging pandemic of GBV in South Africa and the world at large. To this end, we as citizens, must all be determined to always respect the dignity of women and girls in the society. Moreover, we must also cooperate with the relevant law enforcement agencies in exposing perpetrators of GBV living in our communities and known to us so that we prevent further loss of innocent lives due to criminality.
Dr Lizzy Oluwatoyin Ofusori is a postdoctoral research fellow at the School of Management, IT and Public Governance, University of KwaZulu Natal, Durban. She writes in her personal capacity.