Feminist struggles in Africa are fought from various fronts, with the law representing but one of them. There have been several notable victories won through the enactment and enforcement of women-friendly laws. At an international level, CEDAW guarantees the human rights, equality, and integrity of women before the law. Regionally, the Maputo Protocol guarantees comprehensive rights to women including the right to social and political equality with men. Article 4 of the Protocol states that every woman shall be entitled to respect for her life and the integrity and security of her person. South Africa has ratified both these instruments.
South Africa is also said to have one of the most progressive constitutions in the world. The right to equality is enshrined in section 9 which states that “everyone is equal before the law and has the right to equal protection and benefit of the law”. Section 12 of the South African constitution protects “Freedom and Security of the Person”. The section stipulates the freedom from all forms of violence, regardless of whether a public or private source. Despite such victim centric and progressive laws, there exists a gap between the law on paper and black women’s lived experiences.
South Africa continues to have one of the highest rates of violence against women outside of a war zone. On 1 April 2019, the president declared the that gender-based violence (GBV) in South Africa is a “national crisis”. In the prologue to the 2020 National Strategic Plan on GBV, President Ramaphosa proclaimed that the “the South Africa we want is a country where all its citizens are able to lead their lives of dignity and freedom, and where the vulnerable and marginalised are protected by our Constitution and Bill of Rights”. The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic has served to highlight how much work needs to be done before this is a lived reality for the women in South Africa.
On Sunday, 15 March 2020, President Cyril Ramaphosa declared a national state of disaster due to the COVID-19 virus outbreak. To stop the spread of COVID-19, the government has enforced a national lockdown in South Africa from 26 March 2020. However, this mass effort to save lives has put domestic violence victims at an increased risk of further harm. Of equal concern to the spread of COVID-19 is the patriarchal truth that homes are often not safe for women or girls. At its core, GBV is about control and power. An important part of psychological control is the isolation of the victim from the outside world. This is largely in part because isolation decreases the opportunity for the victim to escape abuse, Conversely, user-friendliness of GBV services and the ability of women to access these services is likely to decrease.
Compounding the problem is the lack of awareness by community members and service providers of the rights, legal remedies, and available services in cases of GBV. This contributes to the low reporting rates within communities. Low reporting in turn, leaves victims further exposed to violence and other rights violations. This culture of silence is prevalent in the informal settlement of Diepsloot where Lawyers against Abuse (LvA) works. The GBV prevalence rates in Diepsloot are almost double than other parts of South Africa. Research conducted by the University of Witwatersrand revealed that 56% of the men surveyed admitted to committing some form of physical or sexual violence against a woman in the previous 12 months, with one third using both physical and sexual violence. A majority (60%) had enacted multiple instances of violence.
The women and girls we see have been or are at risk of becoming victims of GBV. In our context, these victims/survivors are black women and girls and may include women with disabilities, lesbian and bisexual women, transgender and intersex people, and HIV-positive women. A large portion of our clients are also unemployed and are marginalised not only for their race and gender, but also for their socio-economic status.
So how then do we silence the war on women’s bodies and amplify the voices of those who have been deliberately silenced and or the preferably unheard? LvA conceptualises empowerment not as a feel-good strategy that merely teaches women to cope in a system that disadvantages them, but rather as a process by which women are encouraged to shift their current subject positions from disempowered victims to agents of change in their own lives and in their broader community.
In 2017 and 2018, LvA’s community engagement team provided a series of trainings to young women on the structural drivers of GBV. Members of our team have lived and worked in Diepsloot for more than a decade. These trainings explored the various positions of power that are occupied by different people at different points in time, based on diverse axes of inequality, including gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, race, class, and level of education. Upon completion of the workshop series, these women formed the Diepsloot Community Action Team (DCAT). The DCAT seeks to increase the capacity of other young women to understand and challenge the structural drivers of GBV and to shape community attitudes on GBV in Diepsloot.
In anticipation of the increase in GBV incidents resulting from COVID-19 regulations, the DCAT will be conducting a door to door to increase community member’s awareness of their rights, legal remedies, and available support services for GBV. LvA operates on the belief that an increased knowledge of the justice system will enable individuals to hold state actors accountable for any misconduct, thereby improving state actor response services. This, in turn, mitigates GBV as perpetrators are held accountable for their actions. LvA’s multidisciplinary team provides critical legal and psychosocial support to GBV victims whilst providing oversight to ensure that GBV laws are being implemented properly. Let us end the culture of silence and instead, silence the war on women’s bodies!