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HRW: Gender-based violence remains rampant in South Africa

Ineke Mules
November 25, 2021

The NGO says authorities desperately need to do more to address the crisis of gender-based violence, particularly amid the pandemic. But hard data on the number of victims is still worryingly difficult to come by.

A silhoutte of a woman.
South Africa has one of the world's highest rates of gender-based violenceImage: Gulshan Khan/AFP/Getty Images

Street Debate: Gender-based violence in South Africa

A new Human Rights Watch (HRW) report has revealed the dire state of gender-based violence in South Africa and is urging the government to do more to combat the problem.

Described as the country's "second pandemic" by President Cyril Ramaphosa, gender-based violence in South Africa is still increasing at an alarming rate, making it one of the world's most unsafe places for women: According to statistics, a woman is murdered every three hours in South Africa.

Experts say much of such violence in South Africa is culturally rooted, with patriarchal attitudes entrenched by high levels of poverty and unemployment that leave women particularly vulnerable.

Earlier this year, DW's The 77 Percent hosted a street debate in Johannesburg on the issue. During the debate, survivors of domestic abuse and rape, frontline workers and perpetrators spoke out on how South African society needed to change.

Women protesting, while holding up a sign reading: Stop killing us
Protests against gender-based violence are common in South AfricaImage: Reuters/S. Hisham

As the world marks the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, the report also serves as a wake-up call to South African authorities, explained HRW researcher Wendy Isaack, especially as the country continues to grapple with the impacts of the pandemic.

"The government of South Africa has been addressing gender-based violence during the crisis over the past year," she said. "But a large-scale and fully resourced effort will be needed to ensure the COVID-19 crisis and its fallout over the next years doesn't result in South Africa's rates for gender-based violence worsening further."

More funding needed

Based on interviews conducted by HRW at seven shelters across the country, as well as six other frontline organizations working directly with victims, one of the key problems is a lack of government funding.

"The government is not providing enough funding for shelters and they're not providing funding in a timely manner," HRW emergencies researcher for the Women's Rights Division, Sky Wheeler, told DW.

While the South African government has acknowledged high rates of GBV both before and during the COVID-19 pandemic — including in the National Strategic Plan — broken promises to follow through with funding and pandemic-related problems such as lockdowns and job losses have only exacerbated the situation.

"We found that during the COVID-19 pandemic and during the lockdown these problems continued and made things much more difficult for shelters to be able to provide these life-saving services for women and other victims of gender-based violence," said Wheeler.

Police officers stand guard as crowds stand on a street.
Sociologists blame South Africa's male-dominated society for gender-based violenceImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo

HRW also stressed that many victims of such violence belong to marginalized communities that already struggle to access support networks.

"Especially vulnerable groups, for example the LGBT+ community, sex workers who often face gender-based violence and migrants who may be undocumented, all need to get more outreach," says Wheeler. "They find it even harder than other South Africans to access these services."

Numbers still inconclusive

Although HRW was able to document the experiences of shelter workers and gender-based violence victims in the report, it is still not clear precisely how much this type of violence increased during the pandemic — a fact Wheeler says needs to be urgently addressed.

"We got a really wide range of answers when we asked people: Has gender-based violence gotten worse during the pandemic? The data sadly and problematically isn't really that clear. And that indicates more needs to be done to collect data."

An analysis by the German Heinrich Böll Foundation released in August found no clear indication that rates had increased but recommended further research based on evidence including incomplete police reports and interviews with frontline workers.

Children make faces behind a window during South Africa's lockdown
With families stuck at home during lockdown, there were fears of increasing domestic violenceImage: AFP/M. Longari

Victims commonly do not report abuse, particularly during a lockdown.

"What is clear is that people who are already in danger of gender-based violence were put in a terrible situation," explained Wheeler.

"If you don't think you're going to be able to find another job or a way to support yourself and your children, you're much less likely to be able to leave a situation where you're in danger of violence or even death."

The South African government has also been criticized for not anticipating or acknowledging the impact of strict lockdowns in time and failing to provide enough information to the public about shelters and services, leaving many unaware that they were able to leave their homes to seek help or protection.

Edited by: Chrispin Mwakideu