Gender-based violence is a serious illness, we need to act now!
IT IS a firmly established reality that South Africa is a violent society.
The statistics released annually by the SAPS and other agencies clearly speak to this fact. The alarming increase in violence against females reflect another frightening dynamic of this state of affairs.
The truth is that our nation’s men are abusing and killing our women and female children at a rate that is virtually unprecedented elsewhere in the world.
One in three women will become a victim of some form of gender-based violence in her lifetime.
Why is this happening? The answers to the question are complex and are related to a range of influences, from cultural to political.
It might have been easier if this question could have been addressed by simply citing psychological or sociological factors that are shaping the violent behavioural tendencies.
However, the history and legacy of violence runs deep and cannot be explained in one-dimensional terms.
However, it is possible to map out and identify gaps that have emerged in the social fabric of our society, which are contributing to the poor response towards the violence.
It is also possible to attempt to rectify these to begin the hard work of reducing the incidence and prevalence of genderbased violence.
To do this we need to understand the implementation of solutions from two broad approaches.
The first is a preventative or pre-incidence approach where we have measures in place to ensure the violence does not take place in the first instance.
Ideally, this is where we need to shift our focus, so that we reduce the burden being placed on the second approach – the post-incidence response to violence.
Many of our structural interventions are geared towards responding to gender-based violence after it has taken place. This occurs where the legal, medical, psychological, social, religious and other institutions are overburdened with regard to providing support to victims and survivors after they have endured a traumatic experience of some kind, whether it is domestic abuse, sexual assault or rape.
Victims might make their way to a police station to open a case or go to the courts to seek a protection order. They might even approach the maintenance or family court to deal with divorce or child custody matters.
The government has set up the Thuthuzela Care Centres as one-stop places where victims can seek medical, legal and other assistance.
NGOs and public benefit organisations, like the Advice Desk for the Abused, Persons Opposed to Women Abuse and Jess Foord have emerged to support survivors.
Over the past 20 years, South Africa has introduced some of the most advanced legislation in the world to protect victims. These include the Domestic Violence Act (1998), Children’s Act (2005), Older Person’s Act (2006), the Sexual Offences and Related Matters Act (2007), Child Justice Act (2008) and the Protection from Harassment Act (2011).
Provisions are in place to ensure that perpetrators of gender-based violence are to be given the harshest sentences possible which, in turn, is meant to act as a deterrent to possible perpetrators.
These acts, particularly the Domestic Violence Act, are designed to provide effective and speedy remedies for victims. Sexual assault, rape and domestic violence are criminal offences and are prosecuted by the state.
However, despite all the advancements in law and the existence of support structures, we still have a high prevalence of gender-based violence.
The reason can be attributed largely to the poor implementation of the provisions and rights contained in the legislation.
In addition, South Africans are generally not au fait with their rights. As a result, they are subject to further victimisation when they attempt to seek help. Sometimes police officers at a police station might refuse to open a case file in a sexual assault case even though they are obliged to do so by law.
Some magistrates might have a poor understanding of the correct circumstances in which protection orders are to be granted. As a result, the applicants face further complications where a perpetrator of domestic abuse ends up in the same house as the victim.
These are examples of how the shoddy implementation of what are otherwise well-thought-out pieces of legislation are contributing towards the problem.
The question then remains: What do we do about it?
The first place to start is obviously a massive nationwide education and public service announcement campaign, which seeks to disseminate the necessary information which the public and all stakeholders need to address the problems.
Well, there are many such campaigns already, you might argue, why are these not effective in stemming the tide of violence?
The reason is because they are geared towards the post-incidence approach, where the violence has escalated and what is then required are management strategies to “mop up” the aftermath of the violence. This includes medical care, trauma counselling, legal assistance and shelter support.
However, the education campaign needs to focus on the preventative and pre-incidence approach, much like the national HIV campaigns work – they urge one not to get infected in the first instance.
This requires that we radically modify the early childhood development, primary and secondary school syllabi and gear them towards teaching learners about how to avoid situations of abuse and gender-based violence.
Learners should also be educated about their rights in this context. The life orientation skills component of most of our school syllabi does not address this knowledge and skills set. We urgently need to ensure they do.
Of course, the impact of revising the school curriculum can be assessed only after some time has elapsed.
The same should ideally take place at institutions of higher learning.
In terms of the post-incidence approaches, there are massive gaps in the knowledge and understanding of the laws and how they function.
All police officers, magistrates and other court officials who are role players in the legislative processes need to be further trained in how to implement the laws more effectively.
All citizens need to have a basic understanding of their rights, so they can respond to and diffuse any abuse when they encounter it.
We need to develop public networks of support in all communities so that if a woman or a girl is attacked in any way, she is able to seek immediate assistance or reach a safe place as soon as possible.
In the same way that other public health assistance like vaccinations are provided to children, health clinics should also become places where information about gender-based violence and how to deal with it is disseminated.
All forms of public transport, street poles, shopping malls and other visible public areas like petrol stations should have posters and stickers put up with emergency numbers and other information about what to do in a situation of sexual assault, rape or domestic violence.
This should include information about how to protect oneself from becoming a victim as well as how to manage a situation after one has been attacked.
Perhaps the most critical aspect of our intensified approach has to be the role played by the public. While we all deserve safe spaces that are protected by our law enforcement officials, the reality is that we do not have the ideal scenario.
Hence the responsibility lies with us, as citizens, to demand that the measures that have been suggested in this column (and in other formations like the national Shut Down campaign) are implemented.
There are many organisations that are doing excellent work in trying to disseminate information and provide assistance to the public, but they are struggling to survive and remain functional because of a lack of funding, or because the available funding is being spent inappropriately.
We need to fund such NGOs from corporate and community resources.
We cannot continue to bury victims of gender-based violence at the rate we are. Nor do we have the luxury to remain apathetic about the scourge of gender-based violence. It has become a public health epidemic and in responding to it, we need to treat it as such and do what we would otherwise do to save lives impacted upon by a serious illness.