António Guterres, a Portuguese politician and diplomat who is now serving as the ninth secretary-general of the United Nations, described violence against women as a “global pandemic” and “a mark of shame on all our societies”.

Gender-based violence is a form of discrimination and a violation of the fundamental human rights of women. This phenomenon is deeply rooted in gender inequality and continues to be one of the most notable human rights violations across the globe. According to the World Health Organisation, the numbers in this senseless war on women is staggering: worldwide, 35% of women have experienced either physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner or sexual violence by a non-partner. Globally, as many as 38% of murders of women are committed by an intimate partner. More than 240-million women and girls between the ages of 15 and 49 suffer physical or sexual violence at the hands of an intimate partner each year.

These numbers are set to significantly increase, mostly because of the global lockdown measures that were put in place by governments to contain the spread of Covid-19. Home isolation orders presented abusers with increased opportunities to cause harm and even kill women who have been rendered more vulnerable with limited options for escape from their toxic environments.

This war on women is largely based on hierarchical and unequal structural power relations rooted in culture-related gender norms. It also reveals domination in the symbolic and cultural order and often manifests itself in direct violence. This pandemic of violence captures the oppressive pattern of coercive control which deprives women of their fundamental human rights.

Prior to the coronavirus phenomenon in South Africa, statistics of gender violence were among the highest in the world. Government reports show a devastating reality; a South African woman is murdered every three hours on average, with many assaulted and raped before their demise. As many as 51% of women have experienced violence at the hands of someone they trusted, including family members. Protests and various demonstrations followed thereafter demanding the government to declare gender-based violence and femicide a national crisis.  

The gruesome murder of Tshegofatso Pule, a twenty-eight-year-old woman who was eight months pregnant and who was stabbed and hung in a tree like a dog, illustrated the harsh reality of the daily violence women face. While we welcome the efforts by police in arresting the alleged perpetrator, we are shattered by this senseless killing and the loss of yet another life. The brutality killings that continue to manifest also entail a significant cost for the well-being of our communities and the future of our youth.

The former president of Burkina Faso, Thomas Sankara once said: “Inequality can be done away with only by establishing a new society, where men and women will enjoy equal rights. Thus, the status of women will improve only with the elimination of the system that exploits them.”

Numerous studies have shown that children growing up in violent and abusive environments are more likely to become victims or instigators of violence in the future. We cannot afford to wait any longer. This pandemic knows no social or economic boundaries and affects women and girls of all socioeconomic backgrounds: this issue needs to be addressed and action is required now. 

In the recent past, we have seen enough condemnation but not enough action from those in authority. It is ironic when you see those in authority joining advocacy groups and signing petitions to march against their own inaction.

The inaction of our government is a contributing factor to this pandemic: insufficient policing, lost police dockets, repeated perpetrators seen roaming the streets on bail and lawmakers in sleep mode.

Addressing the complex development challenge of gender-based violence requires significant learning and knowledge-sharing through partnerships and long-term programmes.

We need a proactive approach through investment, research and collaboration with relevant stakeholders.

Most importantly, the fight requires political will. There can no longer be lip service when it comes to violence against women and children. In 2018 the government, in partnership with various non-governmental organisations, held a National Gender Summit in response to a protest that saw nationwide marches over violence against women and children. A seven-page document of declaration filled with 16 resolutions was adopted and the then minister of social development Susan Shabangu announced that the government had a six-month national development plan to implement the resolutions. Two years later, the government’s response is that “outcomes of that summit are currently in the process of being implemented”.

Femicide needs to end. Government ought to accept crimes against women as a national crisis in order for there to be decisive action taken against this evil pandemic we are still confronted with. Legal systems and public policy frameworks have to be amended accordingly and we need to ensure that the laws in South Africa are not misapplied and government actors, including police and the national prosecuting authority, are held responsible for the correct application of laws.

Furthermore, comprehensive training must be given to the first respondents (the police) and the judiciary on how to address violence against women and girls. Regular awareness and educational campaigns must be implemented on a large scale to make violence against women socially unacceptable and involve men and boys in combatting this crime against women. Most importantly, we have to intentionally strengthen women’s ability to earn money equivalent to their male counterparts, and provide support for disadvantaged women by developing their skills.

Leaders of society involved in “romantic relations” with young women is another form of gender-based violence that we are grappling with as a nation. This is akin to paedophilia. The exploitation of young women by older men who hold some or other status in society, must be called out and persecuted.

Politicians and public figures ought to exemplify the highest form of morality and discipline. If we have to worry about our leaders violating women we will not win the fight against gender-based violence.

Bongani Baloyi is the executive mayor of Midvaal local municipality