To women in South Africa GBV is not a shadow pandemic, it is in the centre of their existence
It is amazing how a pandemic gets to be a shadow. About a month ago, United Nations Women (UN Women) issued a statement in which gender-based violence was explained as a shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic. Clearly the current health pandemic is nothing to sneeze at. After all, the statistics clearly establish why this pandemic is of major global concern.
As of this writing, more than 4.2 million cases have been confirmed with more than 292,000 deaths worldwide.
In South Africa, the figures are severely concerning with more than 11,300 confirmed cases and more than 200 deaths. In all sincerity, the world has come to a standstill with lockdowns and other draconian measures put in place to prevent further spread. Civil liberties have been curtailed, human rights abuses have occurred, millions of people have lost their jobs, and millions more are without food.
International donor conferences are being held, virtually of course, and billions of dollars are promised to combat the disease. Governments are injecting billions and in some cases trillions of dollars to resuscitate economies. Police and members of the armed forces have been deployed to ensure compliance and regulatory agencies are robustly making sure that business and the public are obeying laws. For the most part, globally people are in obeisance to these rules.
The news media is dominated with reports about the pandemic and it appears that nothing else is happening in the world, even in our country. We wake up with news of Covid-19 and go to bed with the same news. A whole new fashion industry has arisen in response to the virus; mask wearing has become the new normal. We have been bombarded with new dictions and dictums that are now babbled as if they have been around forever.
We now have to Wash our hands, Obey social distance while we flatten the curve, “Mask up,” Exercise and eat well and No travel that's unnecessary (WOMEN), and we are not to touch our mouth, ears and nose (MEN).
Let us juxtapose these initiatives and development to the responses we have had toward gende-based violence. According to UN Women, more than 240 million women and girls globally have been the victim of gender-based violence. What is even more disturbing is the fact that less than 40 percent of women who are so victimized seek or get help. A more grotesque global fact is that less than 10 percent of women who seek police assistance get any.
In South Africa, the statistics are grimmer. According to various studies, more than 50 percent of women murdered in 2009 were killed by “an intimate male partner”. It has also been reported that more than a third of South African women have experienced sexual and/or physical violence at the hands of an intimate partner. More than half of South African women have experienced emotional and economic abuse; whereas between 12-28 percent of women have reported being raped. More than a third of South African men have raped a woman; in addition, gang rape is widespread in our country. This epidemic is so rife that President Cyril Ramaphosa has declared it an emergency and gender-based violence a crisis.
Meanwhile the regulatory agencies responsible for dealing with this scourge have not done so with a third of the panache that the State has mobilised against Covid-19. The media has not made gender-based violence front and centre of its reporting, with the same tenacity and deep understanding it requires, although it has been trying to do so in the last couple of months. We have not seen any flattening of the curve in relation to stopping or preventing gender-based violence. We have not seen the creation of new spaces or infrastructure to deal with the pandemic that women and girls have continuously endured.
The State’s response to Covid-19 inherently creates a more difficult challenge for women and girls to escape gender-based violence. The lockdown imposed on the world and in our country has created a condition in which gender-based violence may continue, unreported, and unchecked. In focusing on Covid-19, services and networks that attend to victims of gender-based violence have been curtailed. Women and girls who depend on the informal sector for their livelihood have been left in limbo as their means of income is cut off. With the economy contracting and unemployment increasing, women and girls will become even more vulnerable to the whims and caprices of men.
The relief announced by the government, regarding the food parcels for those in need, only creates another avenue to exploit vulnerable women and girls. The theft, corruption and the fact that some food parcels are not edible will affect mostly women and girls who are breadwinners in many poor communities. It is not unthinkable that some women and girls may have to “sell sex” for food parcels that are supposed to be free.
An existing pandemic that is known to the powers that be has now become a shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic. It can not be a shadow, it should not be a shadow.
The pandemic of gender-based violence needs to be treated with similar determination and attention. Just as we work to contain and eventually eliminate Covid-19, we should also employ similar tactics, policy options and gusto to containing and eliminating gender-based violence. The scourge of violence against women and girls is not new, it was with us prior to this health pandemic and will inevitably remain afterwards. Perhaps, we need to leverage the new zeal of the state to deal with Covid-19 in the direction of addressing gender-based violence.
All pandemics need to be treated similarly. They are bad for the nation and the state, therefore they should be prevented, opposed, condemned, excised, and ultimately stopped.* Brenda Madumise-Pajibo is director if the WISE Collective.