By Fidelis Udo
‘Men in our country have declared war on our women’. This was South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa’s statement during his televised address to the nation on the evening of the 48th day of the lockdown of the country due to the prevailing coronavirus pandemic. The statement expressed concerns over the rising cases of gender-based violence against women during the lockdown. Even though the South African government and some civil society organisations such as the National Shelter Movement have generally taken measures to curb the increased epidemic of gender-based violence in the country, it is necessary to draw specific attention to the needs of women in rural settlements who, arguably, seem to be the ones that bear the greatest brunt of the problem. Globally, it has been documented that the pandemic has unleashed high levels of gender-based violence.
The global data and statistics prompted Dr. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngucka, Executive Director of UN Women, and former Deputy President of South Africa to characterize violence against women and girls as a shadow pandemic. Alarmingly, records of gender-based violence in South Africa have skyrocketed during the country’s lockdown because of the novel corona virus pandemic. The South African Police Services received about 87,000 gender-based violence calls during the first week of the lockdown. This number included those who only expressed fears that the lockdown might worsen gender abuse incidences. Still, in the first three weeks after the lockdown started on March 27, more than 120,000 victims had rung the South African National helpline for gender-based violence. With this upsurge, it is evident that South Africa battles another deadly epidemic of domestic violence amidst the coronavirus lockdown.
Tragically, this is not the first time a rapid surge in gender-based violence in South Africa has been compared to a war. In 2019 during his speech to the country’s Parliament, President Ramaphosa compared incidences of gender-based violence in South Africa to that of a ‘country at war’. That year, about 2,700 women and 1,000 children were reported to have been maimed and murdered, and about 100 raped daily in the country in 2019. The situation then was so bad that many women in the country seemed to have been living in perpetual fear, always asking themselves, ‘Am I Next?.’ The violence has gotten worse during this lockdown that South Africa’s Public Works Minister, Patricia de Lille, during her briefing on the government’s effort to curb gender-based violence, grieved that ‘we live in a sick society’, with women under siege in South Africa.
The South African government and other civil society organisations are not silent to the plight of abuse of women in the country. On May 13, President Ramaphosa mentioned in his weekly newsletter that ‘one of the interventions we have made is to ensure lockdown regulations be structured in a manner that a woman can leave her home to report abuse without the fear of a fine, intimidation or further violence’. Since December 2019, the South African government has also been reported to have refurbished about ten State-owned buildings and converted them into havens for abused women.
Similarly, at the early stage of the lockdown, The National Shelter Movement of South Africa and other partner organisations had devised lockdown safety plan for victims of domestic violence. The plan mainly involves advising victims to call for help, either from neighbours or appropriate government designated help centres. Despite these measures being put in place by the government and civil society organizations, it seems that for these interventions to be equitable, attention needs to be paid to the plight of women in rural settlements.
Rural women arguably are at a greater disadvantage of getting help from the gender-based violence interventions. Due to the nature of their locations, they are less likely, than their counterparts in the urban areas, to readily get access to news media through which most of the interventions are publicised. Besides, many rural women, due to lack of awareness are also less likely to report abuse. Besides the fact that some may be afraid of not being believed, some are likely to fear secondary victimisation from their perpetrators, whom, in the long run, they will continue to live together in the rural areas.
As some of the abusers are also providers of food for the family, some dependent women from the rural areas may fear that if they report their perpetrators, they might stop providing food for them and, if any, their children. In light of these thoughts, it seems plausible to suggest that the government pay much closer attention to rural women. Efforts at curbing gender-based violence during this lockdown and beyond needs to embark on a massive campaign to enlighten rural women of their rights, and to erase any fear in them that deter them from reporting violent abuse. Giving them enough confidence and assurance of continued safety from their perpetrators even after they have reported them will go a long way to arm women in rural settlements against this incessant gender-based violence war.
Fidelis Udo is a Doctoral Candidate in the School of Social Sciences, University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. He is interested in identity politics, issues of gender, race, class socio-cultural and socio-political dynamics.