SA is a country with one of the highest rates of rape, domestic violence and intimate femicide in the world, despite the fact that we have one of the most progressive constitutions in the world that protects women’s privacy, bodily integrity and right to life. As a nation, we are facing a social crisis and an unravelling of the social fabric. We have failed to implement the law and enforce mandatory sentencing for perpetrators. Bail is also too easily awarded. There is underresourcing of trauma centres, sexual offences courts and shelters. The ongoing secondary victimisation of rape survivors in courts also contributes to underreporting of crimes against women.

If ever there was an indictment against the government’s lack of political will to deal with gender-based violence it was the mass protests and rallies at parliament over a period of three days last week. The battle cry was “Enough is enough”! 

At parliament, the posters spoke of an anger and desperation among women and male allies about the extent and brutality of the violence: “Am I next?”; “I don’t want to die with my hands up and my legs open”; “I am so f***ing tired of living in fear”. 

Women have become cannon fodder for the war that rages in our homes, our streets, our workplaces and even our post offices. SA is a country with one of the highest rates of rape, domestic violence and intimate femicide in the world, despite the fact that we have one of the most progressive constitutions in the world that protects women’s privacy, bodily integrity and right to life.

Yet, when women peacefully protested in front of the Cape Town International Convention Centre, they felt the violence of the state, which dispersed them with stun grenades and water cannons and assaulted some. Women cannot expect protection from men (as the minister for women, youth and people with disabilities would have us believe) or the state.

Concerned Capetonians ttend a peaceful and silent candle light vigil at the Grand Parade, Cape Town on September 7 2019. Picture: ESA ALEXANDER/SUNDAY TIMES
Concerned Capetonians ttend a peaceful and silent candle light vigil at the Grand Parade, Cape Town on September 7 2019. Picture: ESA ALEXANDER/SUNDAY TIMES

In 2016, female students were out in the streets with topless marches in the #EndRapeCulture campaigns to raise awareness against men’s attitudes, perceptions and practices that create a culture that normalises sexual violence.

In 2108, women once again took up the struggle with #TotalShutDown. They demanded an audience with President Cyril Ramaphosa and a national summit on gender-based violence (GBV).

On August 1 2018, they marched to the Union Buildings, where they met with the president. And yet here we are 13 months later with little visible progress and thousands more women raped and murdered. If we could substitute women with members of one ethnic group we would have been able to talk about a genocide. This is indeed a genocide of women.

The national summit against GBV and femicide took place on November 1-2. The declaration of this summit has 17 demands, the most important of which are the commitment of political leadership; better resourcing of the Thuthuzela care centres (one-stop centres at police stations to handle rape survivors), shelters for domestic violence and sexual offences courts; a national strategic plan on GBV developed within six months; fast-tracking outstanding laws; and the decriminalisation of sex work.

Protesters form triangles with their hands during a demonstration for women's rights in Bilbao, Spain, March 8 2018, on International Women's Day. Picture: REUTERS
Protesters form triangles with their hands during a demonstration for women's rights in Bilbao, Spain, March 8 2018, on International Women's Day. Picture: REUTERS

In 2011, a resolution was taken and approved by the cabinet to develop an integrated plan on GBV. In 2012, under then president Kgalema Motlanthe, the plan was approved and inaugurated. A national council for GBV was to be established with guidance from political leadership, adopting a multisectoral approach that would monitor implementation and interventions.

In the aftermath of the horrific gang rape and disembowelment of Anene Booysen — another rape that took us to the streets — there was again a request for a national council on GBV. In 2013, a CEO was appointed and the Human Sciences Research Council was contracted to assist. Yet, after the 2014 election, the council was scrapped for no apparent reason. That same year civil society started the Stop Gender Violence Campaign to assist the government.

In 2014, KPMG did an analysis of the economic effect of GBV for SA. It amounted to between R28.4bn and R42.4bn for 2012/2013, or 0.9%–1.3% of GDP. These costs are mainly carried by individuals.

In 2013, while I was a commissioner for the Commission of Gender Equality, together with the Women’s Legal Centre and the Shelter Network of the Western Cape, we did a costing of what a realistic government subsidy should be for shelters for domestic violence. We developed a report from the research, but the report was never taken up by the government.

A national strategic plan on a GBV shadow framework has now been developed. This is an 88-page document with five priorities: expanding the definition of GBV; implementing existing laws and policies; improving and expanding psychosocial services for survivors; prevention, intervention research and documentation; and establishing robust accountability mechanisms and sufficient resources.

During the past few months, the government has been consulting civil society in all the provinces on this plan. These consultations have just been concluded. On August 29 there was a session of the Women’s Parliament (a combined session of female MPs, female ministers and civil society organisations) with the theme “Strengthening the National Gender Machinery as a Response to Addressing GBV in SA”. 

At this sitting, the message from the government was that it will conduct provincial consultations with women on the 1994 Women’s Charter. But why this costly exercise if the government is already holding consultations, and how is it relevant to the large-scale crisis of sexual violence at this moment? Are the politicians fiddling while Rome burns?

We have been at this juncture so many times before. What we have is a failure to implement laws and of mandatory sentencing. Bail is given to alleged perpetrators far too easily. There is an underresourcing of the Thuthuzela care centres, the sexual offences courts and shelters, and there is secondary victimisation of rape survivors in courts, which contributes to underreporting.

Most interventions focus on what happens after a rape or murder. What we as a nation are facing is a social crisis and an unravelling of the social fabric. The causes of this crisis are complex and multilayered, but have historical roots in the brutalising violence of colonialism and apartheid and poverty, combined with too many men who are not involved with their children.

Toxic masculinity forms where women are not valued and are only viewed as objects to satisfy men’s needs. Where gender norms strengthen men’s understanding of their own superiority in relation to women, they develop a sense of entitlement to sex that can lead to them murdering women when women resist.

These problems cannot be solved with legislation. They call for interventions that will address the socialisation of children, psychological pain and social exclusion through poverty and inequality.

Ramaphosa addressed the protesters only on the second day of last week’s rolling mass action, and then with platitudes. Only at that late stage did we see ministers showing an interest in the protest.

The women of SA are so tired of the violence, yet the lack of political will is glaring.

• Prof Gouws is SA Research Chairs Initiative chair in gender politics at Stellenbosch University.