When President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the national lockdown on March 23 in a bid to flatten the curve of the Covid-19 pandemic which has claimed many lives and devastated the global economy, my heart sank as the news was followed by fear-provoking predictions from global gender experts warning about the imminent rise in the number of gender-based violence (GBV) in South Africa.
I became worried because I knew that for thousands of South Africans, most of them women, children and LGBTQI+, the lockdown would put their lives in immediate danger. These vulnerable members of society would be locked inside with their abusers. Let that image sink in for a second. Feel it. Feel the fear, the anxiety, the dread.
Imagine being locked inside a house with an abusive partner, spouse, or relative. Picture that person standing up and coming straight towards you. Try, if you can, to imagine the absolute hopelessness of knowing that this person is going to violate you or strike you, perhaps to death, in a few minutes. And there is precious little you can do about it.
This is the reality many face in South Africa, a country where gender-based violence is unprecedented. According to the latest gender-based violence research, one in four women will experience violence by men and are five times more likely to be killed.
A woman is murdered every three hours in South Africa.
GBV is a global phenomenon. On April 6, UN chief Antonio Guterres called for measures to address the global increase in domestic violence aimed at women and girls. A few days later, on April 12, the UK newspaper The Guardian ran a story showing that Refuge, the UK’s largest domestic abuse charity, saw a 700% increase in calls to its helpline.
The UN now estimates that the number of “intimate partner violence” will increase by 20% during a three-month lockdown period, and predicts an additional 31million gender-based violence cases if the lockdown continues for six months.
GBV is a problem that runs throughout society, and impacts more people than we may realise. While the SAPS crime stats paint a bleak picture every year, they only tell part of the story. They only track those cases that are reported to the police or civil society organizations, and we have very good reason to believe that the numbers are much higher than that, as reports say most GBV cases go unreported, especially domestic violence because of inter alia, the stigma attributed to gender-based violence in general.
Many different numbers have been bandied about regarding GBV cases since the declaration of the State of Disaster. As a technology partner of the Department of Social Development’s (DSD) GVB Command Centre which we helped to launch in 2014, we also have the privilege to get monthly statistics from the DSD that contribute to the SAPS’ statistics.
The centre does not only receive GBV-related calls - social workers find themselves having to respond to distress calls on a number of societal issues. From all these calls, they are able to isolate GBV-related calls for our impact assessment purposes.
For the 2020 calendar year to-date (January to May 31), the command centre has received a staggering 49455 calls, of which 2004 are GBV-related, compared with 87092 for the full year (2019), of which 1846 were GBV- related. In the two months after the lockdown was announced, the command centre received 33715 calls, of these 1427 were GBV-related, up from 133 GVB-related cases for the period March 1-26.
Although we are aware of under-reporting on GBV cases, these recorded numbers paint a bleak picture of a society that has a deep-seated problem of gender-based violence.
The abuse of women and children is entrenched in our patriarchal culture where the boy is socialised to be aggressive, powerful and strong, and the girl to be submissive - in fact, the interests between boys and girls are shaped based on the assigned sex from a very tender age.
It is this social construction of gender identity that perpetuates gender-based violence and all forms of gender discrimination. Although this socialisation is gradually changing, I cannot confidently say that I feel the impact of the change except that, now we have more platforms to talk about this scourge that’s terrorising society; and men are joining the conversations.
We need to change societal stereotypes that perpetuate gender-based violence and not just rely on the criminal justice system, which mainly comes after the fact. In order to restore the moral fabric of society anchored around ubuntu, we need a conversation, together with men and women, to address these underlying causes of our violent and discriminatory culture.
We welcome Ramaphosa’s four-step plan he introduced in April to look at tackling the scourge of GBV, which is focused on four key interventions: broadening access to justice for survivors; changing social norms and behaviours; strengthening existing architecture and promoting accountability; and creating more economic opportunities for women. This approach helps to address my concerns.
We encourage victims to use the GBV Command Centre, SAPS Family Violence, Thuthuzela Care Centres, child protection and sexual investigation units. The Command Centre can be reached on 0800 428 428 or via USSD on *120*7867#; Skype line “HelpMeGBV” for members of the deaf community and an SMS-based line 31531.
Whether its staff members, friends, family or strangers, South Africa’s public sector, businesses and citizens must become active in the fight against what is a largely ignored public health crisis of our own making.
Netshitenzhe is chief officer: corporate affairs, Vodacom Group.