The scourge of gender-based violence in South Africa

There is an urgent need for a more thorough response across the whole spectrum of South African society to tackle the root causes of an epidemic of sexual violence, say Azwifaneli Managa and Bertha Chiroro.

GENDER-BASED violence is a persistent worldwide problem, occurring in every culture in all societies. The underlying problem seems to be that many societies consider it a 'private' affair and therefore 'acceptable'. However, women of different social classes, races, age groups and sexual orientation both in rural and in urban areas are vulnerable to violence perpetrated by men. It is deeply ingrained in societies and has serious impacts on women's health and well-being. Although in South Africa, 16 days of activism against violence on women and children have been set aside, violence pervades our societies on a daily basis with total disregard to the laws and the conventions that our countries are signatories to. What is disheartening is that, whilst the laws are available, whenever a brutal act of violence against women and children happens and the statistics are presented by the police to the public, life seems to go on as usual.

Sadly, the work of combating the scourge is left to a few committed individuals and civil society organisations which continue to support victims as well as lobby for the dignity, freedom and security of women. Sustainable development can never be realised when women and children are petrified and brutalised by violence and any other form of gender-based discrimination which the state has a duty to prevent.

Forms of gender-based violence

Gender-based violence manifests itself in different forms, some brutal, some subtle, such as physical violence; sexual and psychological violence; domestic violence; sexual abuse; rape and sexual abuse of women and children; 'corrective rape' and murder on account of sexual orientation; forced pregnancy; honour killings, burning or acid throwing; female genital mutilation; dowry-related violence; violence and rape in armed conflict; trafficking of women for commercial sex work; and sexual harassment and intimidation at work.

The recent case of the gang rape and subsequent death of a woman in India that sparked outrage worldwide, showed the pervasiveness of violence against women in our societies. However, we are outraged by the fact that South Africa seems to be the epicentre of some gruesome and brutal cases of violence against women and children. There seems to be a notion that South Africa is a place where crimes can be committed and somehow people seem to get away with it without any severe consequences. For example, the UK businessman Shrien Dewani allegedly came to South Africa to violently murder his own wife; the case is still dragging on in the courts, for the extradition of Dewani to face murder charges. Furthermore, the case of the rape of Anene Booysen left the whole country in shock. Subsequent to the brutal death of this young woman, more reports of women being raped and killed all over South Africa have come to light, evidently showing the ills of our society.

President Jacob Zuma during his State of the Nation Address on 14 February alluded to the fact that such forms of brutality and cruelty are unacceptable in South Africa and should be dealt with thoroughly.

In addition, the controversy over the death of Reeva Steenkamp, who was allegedly shot and killed by a person close and trusted to her, has had people's blood boiling and every woman living in panic and trepidation. This has raised emotions all over the world, such that society is now calling for tougher sentences for cases of domestic violence.

Scholars have reported that this scourge is caused by a combination of traditional values, relationship jealousy, power relations and ignorance of women and children's rights amongst others. Violence is a mechanism in which women are forced into a subordinate position and therefore unable to realise their full potential, when lives are lost, careers are cut short, and sustainable development is jeopardised.

Unbelievably so, after 18 years of democracy, South African women are regularly confronted with systemic sexual harassment and violence. The government somehow seems to have failed to enforce laws and policies intended to safeguard women's rights, and even the police often fail to provide adequate protection. Instead of women enjoying the fruits of democratic freedom, they are constantly living in fear of rape, harassment, discrimination and murder. Hence we argue that gender discrimination and violation of women's human rights should have punishable consequences and effective enforcement.

Are our laws failing us?

South Africa has made so much progress since 1994 in terms of putting together legislation, policies, and even resources for the empowerment of women and children, from the country's renowned constitution to various interventions including the recent Women Empowerment and Gender Equality Bill, which is supposed to fill in some gaps with regard to groups that need protection such as widows, women with disabilities, and sexual minorities. Section 9 of the Constitution advises us that 'everyone is equal before the law and has the right to equal protection and benefit of the law';  'equality includes the full and equal enjoyment of all rights and freedoms'; and 'the state may not unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on one or more grounds, including race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language, and birth.' Furthermore, the South African Sexual Offences Act (2007) affords every citizen the maximum protection from domestic abuse that the law can provide - 'free from all forms of violence from either public or private sources.'

In spite of all these efforts and considerable measures, there seems to be a disconnect between when an individual has committed a crime and the reaction imposed on such a crime. In addition, the process from allegation to sentencing is long and unrealistic of crimes in South Africa, specifically for women and children.

Therefore 'justice delayed is justice denied.' It seems as though the legal system does not work when in actual fact it does work but it is too slow.

South Africa's decision to join international commitments and obligations to end violence against women and children seems ineffective, since cases of these acts are high during times when celebrations are happening.

Unfortunately, the country always has high incidence of domestic violence cases during such critical times, which suggests the government is failing to offer the women and child victims the maximum protection and security they most require.

State of gender-based violence in South Africa

The UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (1993) states that 'violence against women is a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women.' South African society, like most societies, is patriarchal in such a way that women are forced into a subordinate position compared with men, which exacerbates their vulnerability to domestic violence.

There are high numbers of sexual offences in South Africa; however, there are conflicting statistics. The 2012 South African Police Service statistics reported 64,514 sexual offences for that financial year, meaning  an average of 176 cases per day. Although there seems to be a 3.7% decrease from the previous year, the figures are believed to be a considerable underestimate of the true number of rapes, as many cases go unreported. Another study, by the Medical Research Council, found that 28% of men surveyed had raped a woman or a girl, and one in 25 said they had raped a woman or girl in the past year. Seemingly, seven rape cases are reported to the police every hour. These figures on their own should be a cause for societal outrage, more so when we consider the fact that most women and children report that their abusers are people close and known to them.

Gender-based violence is a human rights violation, it is also a brutal manifestation of the wider discrimination against women, which is to be understood against the background of women's subordination within the patriarchal system that still exists in South Africa and in most countries. Gender roles and expectations can and do play a role in abusive situations, and exploring these roles and expectations can be helpful in addressing abusive situations. Likewise, it can be helpful to explore factors such as race, class, religion, sexuality and philosophy. The fact that tens of thousands of rapes continue to take place every year in South Africa is a clear indication that the problem must be addressed in a much more urgent, holistic, and forceful manner.


The entrenched culture of sexual violence which prevails in South Africa must end. We need to build a culture that is intolerant of rape and any form of abuse of women and children. Perpetrators should understand that it is absolutely unacceptable to violate others' human rights and that should they envisage or contemplate any form of sexual violence they will have to face the consequences of their terrible acts. There is an urgent need for a more thorough response across the whole spectrum of South African society to tackle the root causes of this epidemic of sexual violence. These issues of sexual violence and murder against women are not of concern to women alone. Every member of society must play their part in a widespread response to stop gender-based violence.


* First and foremost, society has to realise that committing crimes against women and children is wrong, because it scars the whole community. In addition, women, just like anyone else irrespective of sexual orientation, race, class, age, and location, are entitled to their human dignity and integrity.

* Crimes against women and children need to come out of the 'private' arena and become a public issue with political and societal connotations, and hence require an adequate and effective response.

* It should be clearly spelt out that gender-based violence is incompatible with the values of a democratic state and the rule of law and is a serious impediment to sustainable development. The scourge and epidemic of violence against women can be eliminated; it requires a multiplicity of interventions, including tightening the legal instruments, moral and political will, and society rallying against this violation of women's rights.          

Azwifaneli Managa and Bertha Chiroro are researchers with the Sustainable Development programme at the Africa Institute of South Africa. This article is reproduced from Pambazuka News (Issue 617, 20 February 2013,

*Third World Resurgence No. 271/272, Mar/Apr 2013, pp 32-34