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South African women are regularly confronted with systemic sexual harassment, violence, and murder as the recent cases of Shrien Dewani, Anene Booysen and Reeva Steenkamp illustrate. Sustainable development will be unobtainable when women and children are brutalized by violence and any other form of gender based discrimination of which the state has a duty to prevent.

Gender-based violence is a persistent worldwide problem, occurring in every culture in all societies. The underlying problem seems to be that many societies consider it a ‘private’ affair and therefore ‘acceptable’. However, women in different social classes, races, age groups, sexual orientation groups; both in rural and in urban areas are vulnerable to violence perpetrated by men. It is deeply ingrained in societies and has serious impacts on women’s health and well-being. Although in South Africa, 16 days of activism against violence on women and children have been set aside; violence pervades our societies on a daily basis with total disregard to the laws, and the conventions that our countries are signatories to. What is more disheartening is that, whilst the laws are available, whenever a brutal act of violence against women and children happens, and the statistics are presented by the police to the public, life seems to go on.

Sadly, the work of reducing the scourge is left to a few committed individuals and civil society organizations, to continue to support victims, as well as lobby for the dignity, freedom, and security of women. Sustainable development can never be realized when women and children are petrified and brutalized by violence and any other form of gender based discrimination of which the state has a duty to prevent.


Gender based violence manifests itself in different forms, some brutal, some subtle, such as physical; sexual and psychological violence; domestic violence; sexual abuse; rape and sexual abuse of women and children; ‘corrective rape’ and murder on account of sexual orientation, forced pregnancy; honor killings, burning or acid throwing; female genital mutilation; dowry related violence; violence and rape in armed conflict; trafficking of women for commercial sex work; and sexual harassment and intimidation at work.

The recent case of the gang rape, and subsequent death of a woman in India that sparked outrage worldwide, showed the pervasiveness of the nature of violence against women in our societies. However, we are outraged by the fact that South Africa seems to be the epicenter of some gruesome and brutal cases of violence against women and children. There seems to be a notion that South Africa is a place where crimes can be committed and somehow people seem to get away with it without any severe consequences. For example, the UK businessman (Shrien Dewani) allegedly came to South Africa to violently murder his own wife; the case is still dragging on in the courts, for the extradition of Shrien Dewani to face murder charges. Furthermore, the case of the rape and brutality of Anene Booysen left the whole country in shock. Subsequent to this brutal death of this young woman, more reports of women being raped and killed all over South Africa have came to light evidently showing the ills of our society.

The President Jacob Zuma during his State of the Nation Address of 14 February 2013 has alluded to the fact that such forms of brutality and cruelty are unacceptable in South Africa and should be dealt with thoroughly.

In addition, the controversy over the death of Reeva Steenkamp who was allegedly shot and killed by a person close and trusted to her has had every woman’s blood boiling and living in panic and trepidation. This has raised emotions all over the world, such that society is now calling for tougher sentences for cases of domestic violence. Scholars have reported that this scourge is caused by a mixture of traditional values, relationship jealousy, power relations and ignorance of women and children’s rights amongst many. Violence is a mechanism in which women are forced into a subordinate position and therefore unable to realize their full potential, when lives are lost, careers are cut short, and sustainable development is jeopardized.

Unbelievably so, after 18 years of democracy, South African women are regularly confronted with systemic sexual harassment and violence. The government somehow seems to have failed to enforce laws and policies intended to safeguard women’s rights, and, even the police often fail to provide adequate protection. Instead of women enjoying the fruits of democratic freedom, they are constantly living in fear of rape, harassment, discrimination and murder. Hence we argue that gender discrimination and violation of women’s human rights should have punishable consequences and effective enforcement.


South Africa has made so much progress since 1994 in terms of putting together legislation, policies, and even resources for the empowerment of women and children, from South Africa’s renowned constitution to various interventions including the recent Women Empowerment and Gender Equality Bill which is supposed to fill in some gaps with groups that need protection such as widows, women with disabilities, and LGBTI groups. Section 9 (1) of the Constitution advices us that ‘…everyone is equal before the law and has the right to equal protection and benefit of the law’ (2) ‘…equality includes the full and equal enjoyment of all rights and freedoms’ and (3) the same section states that: ‘…the state may not unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on one or more on grounds, of race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, color, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscious, belief, culture, language, and birth. Furthermore, the South African Sexual Offences Act (2007) affords every citizen the maximum protection from domestic abuse that the law can provide; free from all forms of violence from either public or private sources.’

In spite of all these efforts and considerable measures, there seems to be a disconnection when an individual has committed a crime and the reaction imposed on such a crime. In addition, the process of allegation to sentencing is long and unrealistic of crimes in South Africa, specifically for women and children.

Therefore ‘Justice delayed is justice denied.’ It seems as though the legal system does not work when in actually fact it does work but it is too slow.
South Africa’s decision to join international commitments and obligations to ending violence against women and children seems ineffective, since most cases of these acts are high during times when celebrations are happening.

Unfortunately, the country always has high domestic violence cases during such critical times that suggest government is failing to offer the victims of domestic violence, which are women and children, the maximum protection and security they most require.


The UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (1993) states that ‘...violence against women is a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women.’ South African society, like most societies, is patriarchal in such a way that women are forced into a subordinate position compared with men which exacerbates their vulnerability to domestic violence.

There are high numbers of sexual offences in South Africa; however, there are conflicting statistics. The 2012 South African Police Service statistics reported 64, 514 sexual offences for that the financial year, meaning 176 cases per day. Although there seems to be a 3,7 percent decrease from the previous year, the figures are believed to be a considerable underestimate of the true number of rapes, as many cases go unreported. Another study by the Medical
Research Council study found that 28 percent of men surveyed had raped a woman or a girl, and one in 25 said they had raped a woman or girl in the past year. Seemingly, 7 rape cases are reported to the police every hour. These figures on their own should be a cause for societal outrage, more so the fact that most women and children report that their abusers are people close and known to them.

Gender based violence is a human rights violation, it is also a brutal manifestation of the wider discrimination against women, which is to be understood against the background of the subordination of women within the patriarchal system that still exists in South Africa and in most countries. Gender roles and expectations can and do play a role in abusive situations, and exploring these roles and expectations can be helpful in addressing abusive situations. Likewise, it can be helpful to explore factors such as race, class, religion, sexuality and philosophy. The fact that tens of thousands of rapes continue to take place every year in South Africa is a clear indication that the problem must be addressed in a much more urgent, holistic, and forceful manner.


The entrenched culture of sexual violence which prevails in South Africa must end. We need to build a culture that is intolerant of rape and any form of women and children abuse. Perpetrators should understand that it is absolutely unacceptable to violate others’ human rights and should they envisage/contemplate any form of sexual violence they will have to face the consequences of their terrible acts. There is an urgent need for a more thorough response across the whole spectrum of South African society to tackle the root causes of this epidemic of sexual violence. These issues of sexual violence and murder against women are not of concern to women alone. Every member of the society must play their part in widespread response to stopping gender-based violence.


• Firstly and foremost, society has to realize that committing crimes against women and children is wrong, because it scars the whole community. In addition, women just like anyone else irrespective of sexual orientation, race, class, age, and location are entitled to their human dignity, and integrity.
• Crimes against women and children need to come out of the ‘private’ arena and become a public issue with political and societal connotations, and hence requires an adequate and effective response.
• It should be clearly spelt out that gender based violence is incompatible with the values of a democratic state and the rule of law and a serious impediment to sustainable development. The scourge and epidemic of violence against women can be eliminated; it requires a multiplicity of interventions, including tightening the legal instruments moral and political will, and society rallying against this violation of women’s rights.

* Azwifaneli Managa and Bertha Chiroro are both researchers at the Africa Institute of South Africa, Sustainable Development Program.

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1. Newham, G; Burger, J; Gould, G AND Lancaster, L. September 20, 2012. FACT SHEET: Explaining the official statistics for 2011/12. Total crime level in South Africa. Institute for Security Studies (ISS); Pretoria.
2. Nicholson, Z; Jones, M. February, 8 2013. Up to 3600 rapes in SA every day.