Soaring rates of violence against women

The writer says targeting boys and men through teaching is the most effective way of tackling gender violence at its root.Picture: Tracey Adams

THIS year has seen an unprecedented outcry against the soaring rates of violence against women in South Africa. These rates continue to escalate, year on year, despite laws, policies and interventions that seek to address this scourge. Statistics on femicide, rape and domestic violence are unacceptably high.
We knew this when the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) set out to research the causes of violence in South Africa. What we found in the study “Violence against women in South Africa: A country in crisis”, was chilling.

According to the 2016 Demographic and Health Survey, one in five South African women has experienced physical violence. This figure is reportedly higher in the poorest households, where at least one in three women has reported physical violence.

A 2009 Medical Research Council study also reported that three women die at the hands of their intimate partner every day, a rate five times more than the global average. The rate of sexual violence is also one of the highest in the world. This is despite a myriad of legal and policy protections and interventions by state and non-state actors to address the challenge.

This has left South Africa in a state of crisis. So what are we missing? What can we do to effectively address violence against women? Our study attempted to respond to these critical questions from a little explored perspective – that of the survivor of VAW. And we found that there are no quick and easy answers.
In fact, no one explanation was considered universal or adequate enough to account for the high levels of VAW. A combination of societal, structural and situational factors, as well as individual stressors, all work to fuel VAW. Again, each explanation contributes a valuable perspective, underlining the complexity of VAW and the absence of easy solutions.

We found that VAW is a significant aspect of women’s experiences. Socioeconomic imbalances, often exacerbated by women’s limited access to education, capital, labour opportunities and resource control partly explain the prevalence of VAW. The evidence also suggests that most survivors experience violence throughout their lives, at times justifying or downplaying it. Again, VAW often happens within relations of power and feeds on and induces multiple vulnerabilities, including disability, economic dependence, identity-based inequalities and the personal circumstances of women.

Attempts at tackling VAW in South Africa must therefore consider these complexities. So what should we do? As a first step, we need to prioritise VAW. While gender violence affects both women and men, the reality is that women are most affected. This calls for a focused approach to addressing VAW. Next we need to recognise that that there is an urgent need to address the fragmentation and divisions within and among elements working towards women’s rights. It is important that a comprehensive national strategic plan be developed and adopted.

This means that we must all work hard to ensure that the National Council against Gender-Based Violence is revitalised.

One of the main reasons accounting for the persistence of VAW was attributed to challenges within the criminal justice system, particularly within the police services. It is therefore crucial to address the systemic challenges within the police services in order to restore trust and confidence in the justice system.

Institutional support is not the only challenge. The lack of access to financial resources and support is a central barrier to leaving abusive relationships or even reporting incidences of abuse. We must therefore work to increase women’s economic empowerment through strengthening their entrepreneurship and labour rights, encouraging universal access to education and providing access to capital and resource control.

For many, dealing with VAW starts at children. Childhood experiences such as neglectful and violent parenting practices have been shown to influence the formation of violent masculinities. Approaches to VAW interventions must encourage healthy parenting practices as a prevention strategy. It is also critical, when thinking through parenting to recognise the wide network of influences on the rearing of children. Communities and institutions such as schools, faith communities and the media are critical in the parenting process.

Finally, the media itself has a role to play. Women’s accounts and perceptions of VAW point out that violence is a learned behaviour. The media is identified as being instrumental in shaping individual perceptions of VAW. It is recommended that CSOs and community-based organisations employ the media as a dissemination tool for positive messaging and images of women. They must collaborate with the media, in partnership, to ensure sustainability and a shared sense of responsibility.

The complexity of VAW means we must have a nuanced and multidisciplinary approach in our interventions. These recommendations mean nothing if we simply all agree they are necessary: we must take decisive action and steps towards implementing the strategies presented above.

We can see that South Africa is in a state of impasse at crisis levels of VAW. This realisation must now push us to collectively take action and #EndVAWNow.

Nonhlanhla Sibanda-Moyo is a Gender Specialist at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) and the leading author of the study.