Saturday Star

Time to shift the norms

Nearly quarter of a century after passing Domestic Violence Act, we should be doing better



MAYA Angelou, the American civil rights activist and female writer, is quoted as saying: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” It is 21 years since the Domestic Violence Act was passed, we should be doing better.

South Africa is a violent country. We have a violent past. Unless we find solutions for the sources and manifestat­ions of this violence, we will have a violent future. We need to start with what we know if we are going to make informed decisions about what to do.

We know that intimate partner violence and corporal punishment can start an inter-generation­al cycle of violence. When children are exposed to, witness, or experience violence in their homes, they are more likely to see this violence as normal and go on to perpetrate violence in their adulthood. We know 56% of children report lifetime abuse by caregivers, teachers and relatives. Therefore, we know that to address violence against women, we have to address and prevent violence against children, and we have to address violence within families and intimate partnershi­ps.

We also know that patriarcha­l gender norms affect our beliefs about the use of violence, shaping our ideas of when it is appropriat­e to use. One recent measure of these norms indicated that there are people (both men and women in this particular survey) who believed it was sometimes acceptable and justifiabl­e for a man to hit a woman.

Although that survey reflects just a small percentage of South Africans, our statistics on protection orders and domestic violence point to a much broader problem.

The Department of Justice reported there were 395628 civil cases of domestic violence in the 2016/17 financial year, and in 2017/18 when only 81% of courts gave figures, 209 920 were reported. This means that in the past two financial years alone, more than half a million instances of domestic violence were reported to the department where people were seeking a protection order to stop their abuser from abusing them.

The 2017/18 figures give us some detail on the types of domestic violence taking place, showing that emotional, verbal and psychologi­cal abuse were the most common, followed by physical abuse.

We also know that intimate femicide occurs at extraordin­arily high rates in South Africa, with 2012 research suggesting that every eight hours a woman is murdered by her intimate partner. The 2018 crime statistics showed that 852 murders in seven provinces where trends were analysed were as a result of domestic violence. In addition, a police officer was killed on duty, and 10 police officers were killed off duty, in cases of domestic violence.

So what should we do? It’s clear that domestic violence is a social crisis that needs urgent solutions. It’s clear that the norms that encourage violence are deeply entrenched.

The solutions cannot only be responsive or reactive. There must also be a concerted effort to address the cycle of violence, to challenge and shift the norms and values that condone abuse, and to provide safe housing for people trying to leave violent relationsh­ips.

Research from the Children’s Institute at the University of Cape Town reflects the latest evidence of strategies that work to address family violence and suggests seven integrated approaches to addressing violence against women and children, based on Unicef’s INSPIRE strategies.

These seven approaches are explained in detail in its publicatio­n, but in summary, they include, among other things, developing an integrated implementa­tion strategy for current laws, and a fully-funded programme of action that incorporat­es collaborat­ive solutions, addressing the norms and values that facilitate violence by addressing the structural drivers of violence, poverty, and substance abuse as well as creating safe environmen­ts by changing the social norms underpinni­ng violence against women and children, and promoting positive gender and power relations.

There is also great evidence that having a safe place to escape from abuse can turn around the lives of the women leaving violent relationsh­ips and the lives of their children.

Yet, as ongoing research from the Commission for Gender Equality and others shows, shelters that provide housing for women and their children leaving abusive relationsh­ips face several challenges.

This includes insufficie­nt and inconsiste­nt funding of shelters, late payment of subsidies, security risks, infrastruc­tural problems, lack of standardis­ed salaries for employees doing the same role, a lack of compliance to policies, and no standardis­ed approach to accommodat­e LGBTIQ persons.

This month, the Department of Women, Youth and Persons with Disabiliti­es and the Interim Steering Committee on GBV (gender-based violence) and Femicide is undertakin­g consultati­ons on the draft National Strategic Plan on GBV and Femicide.

This month also marks one year after the #Totalshutd­own marches across our country that called for an end to gender-based violence. With the support of evidence-based research and informatio­n, it is now time for us to do better to address domestic violence.

Smout is a commission­er at the Commission for Gender Equality.

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