Behind closed doors: 16 days of activism against gender-based violence in South Africa

Gary Feldman
27 November 2023
5 min read

In South Africa the battle against gender-based violence (GBV) rages on, with an annual campaign known as the "16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence." This global initiative, observed from November 25th to December 10th, serves as a platform for raising awareness, inspiring action, and fostering a collective commitment to end violence against women and girls. South Africa, like many other countries, grapples with the harsh reality of GBV, making this campaign a crucial catalyst for change.

South Africa has long struggled with high rates of GBV, with statistics painting a grim picture of the challenges faced by women and girls. GBV is a pervasive issue, deeply rooted in societal norms and power imbalances between genders. The 16 Days of Activism campaign seeks to address these issues head-on by engaging communities, government institutions, and individuals in a collective effort to eradicate GBV in all its forms.

GBV stems from societal expectations and unequal power dynamics between genders. GBV is classified as violence specifically aimed at someone because of their biological sex or gender identity. It encompasses various forms of violence such as physical, sexual, emotional, financial, and structural violence. Often rooted in patriarchal structures, GBV disproportionately affects women and girls. It can be perpetrated by intimate partners, acquaintances, strangers, or institutions.

Forms of GBV Include:

  • Intimate Partner Violence (IPV): Most common, involving physical, sexual, and emotional abuse by a partner.
  • Domestic Violence (DV): Violence within family settings, including IPV.
  • Sexual Violence (SV): Encompassing a range of unwanted sexual acts or advances.
  • Indirect structural violence: Inherent in societal structures, leading to unequal power relations and opportunities.
  • Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG): any act or pattern of gender-based violence that results in physical, sexual, psychological, or economic harm or suffering towards women and girls.
  • Violence against LGBTQIA+ people: acts of harm, violence, discrimination, or abuse directed at individuals based on their sexual orientation, gender identity, or expression.

South Africa faces alarmingly high rates of GBV, where intimate partner violence (IPV) and sexual violence are a significant contributor to the GBV epidemic. Annually, many cases go unreported due to social stigma, fear, or lack of trust in the justice system. The impact of GBV extends beyond immediate physical harm, often resulting in long-term psychological trauma and societal consequences. Crime statistics compiled in March 2023 by the South African Police Service (SAPS) revealed that more than 3 children and 12 women were murdered each day in South Africa over a 90-day period between October and December of 2022, and a further combined 21,434 children and women were subject to attempted murder or grievous bodily harm over this same period, and these are only the reported cases. This rate of femicide is 5 times higher than the global average.

South Africa also has one of the highest incidences of rape in the world, with the trend increasing year-on-year over the past two decades. The publication Serial Rape in South Africa citing the World Population Review, published a global comparison of female rape statistics, which measured the number of incidents per 100,000 citizens. South Africa is once again in the top 5 on the list.

The South African Parliament's analysis on crimes against women is alarming. With 51.1% of the population being female, totalling 30.5 million out of 59.62 million, women are facing GBV and femicide, often from those close to them.

Disturbingly, half of the assaults against women are committed by someone close, and 21% have experienced physical violence from a partner. Additionally, 40% of divorced or separated women are more likely to endure physical or sexual violence.

In the Eastern Cape Province, 31.6% of women experience physical violence from a partner, and in the North West Province, the figure is 29.4%.

Despite these alarming statistics, it's crucial to note that reported numbers likely underestimate the true scale of the issue. Estimates suggest that only 1 in 9 GBV crimes is reported to the South African Police, highlighting a significant gap in addressing this pervasive problem.

GBV results in severe human rights violations and has profound social and developmental consequences. Survivors experience psychological trauma, with long-term effects on mental health. The economic burden is substantial, affecting healthcare, HIV rates, reproductive health, and overall productivity.

South Africa has implemented legislative frameworks and international treaties to combat GBV. Response services provide support to survivors, while prevention initiatives aim to address underlying causes. However, a more comprehensive, evidence-based approach is needed.

One vital aspect of combating GBV is ensuring that victims have access to the support they need. Many organisations in South Africa have Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) in place to provide confidential counselling and support services for employees facing personal challenges, including those related to GBV.

  • Confidentiality and support: EAPs are designed to maintain confidentiality, providing a safe space for employees to discuss their experiences without fear of judgment or reprisal. This confidentiality is crucial for victims who may be hesitant to disclose their situations.
  • Counselling services: EAPs often offer counselling services to help employees navigate the emotional toll of GBV. Trained professionals can provide guidance, coping strategies, and emotional support to those in need.
  • Legal assistance: Many victims of GBV require legal assistance to navigate the complexities of reporting incidents and seeking justice. EAPs may connect victims with legal resources and support to ensure their rights are protected.
  • Workplace education: EAPs can contribute to a safer work environment by promoting awareness of GBV. This includes training sessions, workshops, and educational materials that empower employees to recognise and address such issues.

While progress has been made, a concerted effort is required to address GBV comprehensively. South Africa needs to focus on both response and prevention, developing evidence-based programs and fostering collaboration among stakeholders. Scaling up successful interventions and continually building the evidence base will contribute to combating this national crisis.

The “16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence” in South Africa serves as a powerful reminder that change is possible through collective action. By encouraging victims to utilise Employee Assistance Programs, we can take a significant step toward creating a supportive environment for those affected by gender-based violence. As we unite against this pervasive issue, let us strive for a South Africa where every individual, regardless of gender, can live free from the threat of violence and discrimination.

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