“It is with the heaviest of hearts that I stand before the women and girls of South Africa this evening to talk about another pandemic that is raging in our country – the killing of women and children by the men of our country.” President Cyril Ramaphosa, South Africa, 17 June 2020
In March 2020, South Africa - along with many countries across the globe - declared a national state of disaster in terms of the Disaster Management Act and instituted a national lockdown in response to the deadly Coronavirus. According to the government’s website, the Disaster Management Act intends to provide, amongst other things, “an integrated and coordinated disaster management policy that focuses on preventing or reducing the risk of disasters, mitigating the severity of disasters, emergency preparedness, rapid and effective response to disasters and post-disaster recovery.”
In a later address to the nation on 17 June 2020, President Cyril Ramaphosa declared violence against women and girls in South Africa a pandemic alongside Covid19. However, the responses to these two ‘diseases’ are vastly different, and for the first time, we are in a position to compare and analyse governments’ response to gender based violence, with the first observation being that violence against women and children has never formally been declared a national disaster.
In the context of a disease pandemic, for example, within days and weeks of declaring a national lockdown, the South African government instituted legislation shutting down schools and workplaces, banned the sale of alcohol and cigarettes, deployed police and the army to enforce this legislation and rolled out a mass communications campaign to ensure that ALL citizens are aware of the rules and the consequences of breaking them.
The aim of these restrictions were to ‘flatten the curve’ of the virus. The response to gender based violence, referred to by the UN Women as a shadow pandemic, has never been as robust.
THE STATE’S RESPONSE TO GENDER BASED VIOLENCE
In October 2019, a woman was raped in a taxi on her way to work. She was dropped off in Goodwood where she reported immediately to the police in that area. The response: that she needed to report the case at Bellville police station, in the jurisdiction where the rape occurred.
In June 2020, in the middle of the Coronavirus pandemic, a woman was raped once again in a taxi, this time 10pm at night. When she reported to the police station in Site B, Khayelitsha, she was allegedly told to go home, not bathe and come back the next day.
According to media reports, the police officers in both cases faced disciplinary action, but as citizens, we need to be asking deeper questions. Where is the mass communications campaign to educate and inform not only citizens about GBV legislation, policy and mandates around rape and violence, but also to inform, educate and train police officers and other stakeholders about their responsibilities when violence against women and children is reported.
And while the establishment of a National Command Centre for Gender Based Violence must be acknowledged and celebrated, how many South Africans - and women - were aware of the Centre pre-Covid, considering that it had launched six years ago in March 2014.
These questions are important as part of a larger narrative on violence against women as a pandemic, because if we truly regard GBV as a national crisis, then the response, services, support and funding for this pandemic should be adjusted to respond accordingly, and it hasn’t.
So how should we respond to this shadow pandemic? In 2018, thousands of women marched to Parliament as part of #TheTotalShutdown, a campaign and collective call to the South African government to address gender based violence. Citizens in South Africa declared GBV a national disaster and pressured the government to both recognise and take specific action to address rising rates of rape, sexual assualt and the murder of women and chlildren. What followed was a National Summit Against Gender-Based Violence and Femicide, which kicked off the process for creating a National Strategic Plan on Gender Based Violence and Femicide.
Since then, there have been at least three amendments to legislation related to gender based violence released for comment in February 2020 and in May 2020, the final version of the National Strategic Plan on Gender Based Violence and Femicide was handed to the President.
And at this point, we should be asking ourselves whether our interaction with the legislation and policies have been as robust as our responses and backlash to the Covid restrictions on the sale of tobacco and alcohol. How closely are we watching news channels and government for updates on bail and parole before the next woman or child is murdered.
Unless we adopt collective and individual responsibility to push for greater restrictions, preventions, enforcement and implementation of GBV legislation and policies, we will not flatten the curve of the GBV pandemic.
Download and read South Africa's National Strategic Plan on Gender Based Violence and Femicide at: https://www.justice.gov.za/vg/gbv/NSP-GBVF-FINAL-DOC-04-05.pdf
IMAGE CREDIT: Image by rhysara from Pixabay