South Africa’s Caster Semenya celebrates winning a gold medal. Picture: Fabrizio Bensch/REUTERS
PHUMZILE MLAMBO-NGCUKA  

ON SUNDAY, August 13, I joined millions of South Africans in celebrating Caster Semenya’s gold medal victory in the women’s 800m final at the International Association of Athletics Foundations (IAAF) championships.

Not only did Caster add to her impressive Olympic, World and Commonwealth titles, she showed us all how South African women can do extraordinary things against the odds. We celebrate her.

We celebrate, too, women like the late Prudence Mabele, who by talking openly about her HIV status faced down stigma and violence and became a tower of strength for women affected by HIV.

Also women like Colleen Lowe Morna, the chief executive of Gender Links, who is driving women’s agenda through policies and advocacy on key areas such as media, justice and governance.

Then there is Zulaikha Patel, who at the age of just 13 stood up against her school’s discriminatory hair policies, and inspired protests at other schools. These achievements are a testimony to women's ability to push forward in the face of adversity.

Yet, for thousands of South African women the reality of gender-based violence threatens their ability to meaningfully contribute to the economy and accomplish their goals. Many of these women exist in an atmosphere of heightened vulnerability to violence due to economic dependence, racial discrimination, disability and sexual orientation, where they are defined by their race, their bodies, their sexuality and their non-conformity to patriarchal norms, standards and stereotypes.

Horrendous cases of femicide, such as Karabo Mokoena’s murder in April, and the shooting of Kate Chiloane, a schoolteacher killed by her husband in front of her Grade 2 class - have elevated the national conversation on gender-based violence.

Yet, despite the outrage, a collective and concrete prevention response seems lacking, and perpetrators operate with impunity. The South African Medical Research Council found that less than 40% of intimate partner violence cases lead to convictions up to two years after cases have been opened.

This Women’s Month the police ministry announced the Six-Point Plan “Ayihlome against gender-based violence” and, critically, acknowledged that femicide, infanticide, rape and all forms of gender-based violence are a fundamental threat to national security. What we need now is to see the channelling of resources to support this plan. We need to see actions that show the prevention of violence against women is a priority at all costs, including the implementation of good legislation and effective law enforcement so women have access to justice. 

We need leaders who lead by example. When reported cases of gender-based violence - including those involving prominent leaders like former deputy minister of higher education and training Mduduzi Manana - do not result in punitive action, we fail to sufficiently deter would-be perpetrators. When our leaders are themselves offenders, there must be immediate and significant consequences, including removal from office.

We need men and boys at all levels to take an uncompromising stance against gender-based violence. Men must stand with women against such violence, especially when we have leaders who are not leading from the front of this issue. The UN Women’s HeForShe movement has successfully partnered with groups such as the Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference to show how men and boys can work to advance gender equality. 

Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo are examples of people who showed us how committed leaders can change society in order to secure a peaceful future for us all. Let us learn from their example - and that of the many women whose excellence inspires - so that we keep women winning in South Africa and around the world.

Mlambo-Ngcuka is Executive Director of UN Women