By Nabihah Iqbal -
The recent tragedy of Anene Booysen has brought widespread attention to the pandemic of violence, especially sexual violence, against women in South Africa, a country labelled by Interpol as the ‘rape capital of the world’, and where it is estimatedthat a woman is raped every 17 seconds. Booysen’s case has been heralded as marking a turning-point in the country’s attitude towards gender-based violence, but any pragmatists should be wary of notions that this is a wake-up call for the the country’s African National Congress (ANC) government, whose approach to gender-related issues can only be described as ‘sluggish’ at best.
A few days after Booysen’s fatal attack, President Jacob Zuma delivered his State of the Nation Address (SONA). Disappointingly, he offered nothing in terms of specific means by which the government plans on tackling violence against women. He pays some lip service to the issue (which is an improvement on SONA 2012), but no doubt this is only due to the coincidence of the Booysen case occupying the media spotlight in the week preceding his speech.
Of course, President Zuma does not hold back on the clichés. He declares that ‘improving the status of women remains a critical priority for the government’, calling on ‘the need for unity in action to eradicate this scourge’, ending his admonition with the peroration that ‘the brutality and cruelty meted out to defenceless women is unacceptable and has no place in our country.’ But where does he go from here?
President Zuma reaches the apex of his speech on violence against women by proudly announcing the government’s establishment of the National Council on Gender Based Violence in 2012, which he refers to as a ‘coordinating structure to make the campaign of fighting violence against women an everyday campaign.’ However, more bureaucracy is not the answer.
Taking heed of recent statistics, the government needs to realize that more immediate, affirmative action is the way to combat this spiralling problem. Violence against women is still on the rise in South Africa according to a 2012 report by Human Rights Watch. Research carried out across South Africa between 2010 and 2012 indicates that, in some provinces, between 50 and 77 per cent of women have experienced some form of violence in their lifetime. The failure of the criminal justice system to investigate and punish sexual violence, and patriarchal norms and attitudes that excuse or legitimize the use of violence against women have created a culture of impunity. That (sexual) violence against women has become almost ‘normalized’ in South African society is troubling and seriously undermines the country’s progressive legislation on the issue.
What the struggle against gender-based violence needs most from the State is the allocation of resources and funding, in order for existing legislation and policies to be fully implemented. So far the government has failed to make any specific budget allocations to help tackle violence against women. For example, there have been no explicit funds directed towards implementing the police’s legislative mandate under the Domestic Violence Act, since it was enacted in 1998. As well as funding, the government needs to instate an effective education programme within both the communities affected by this violence, and the criminal justice system, in order to increase awareness of the problem. Although the South African Police Service (SAPS) receives some training on domestic violence, officers have themselves admitted that it is far from being adequate. Currently, the Department of Education provides guidance to children about sexual violence which takes place in schools, but there seems to be no state-endorsed approach to educating children about violence experienced out of school, in order to try and facilitate a change in mindset of the younger generations.
Changes must be made in these areas if President Zuma and the ANC are serious about reducing levels of gender-based violence in South Africa for good, and delivering justice to thousands of women who are suffering in a society ridden with sexism.
Nabihah Iqbal is an English Barrister currently working as a legal intern at the Women’s Legal Centre, Cape Town, South Africa.