Intersection of Gender-Based Violence and Cyber bullying in South Africa: Problem but no Solution?

Attorney Mollica Maharaj

Rahman and Rahman Inc., South Africa

During the Covid-19 induced lockdowns, President Cyril Ramaphosa addressed what he called the second pandemic facing South Africans – that of Gender Based Violence (GBV). Many women in South Africa were not shown the basic respect and tolerance to which all people have a right, but instead, were attacked by those closest to them.

To remind civil society of the GBV epidemic in South Africa, prosecutors of the Welkom Magistrate’s Court held a silent march in August (dubbed “Women’s month”) to affirm their opposition to GBV and Femicide and to assure victims that they are ready to assist.

This year in South Africa we also saw how GBV can extend into the online space through cyber bullying. In this particular episode, a locally-known media personality and actor suggested in an online podcast that a victim of rape was inaccurate when recounting her version of the events leading to her rape, and that the perpetrator should be given a fair trial. While all people in South Africa do indeed have a right to a fair trial, this kind of narrative deflects from the seriousness of the rape as a crime and actually makes it more difficult for victims of rape to speak up, for fear of being victimised.

GBV can be physical, sexual, emotional, financial or structural, and can be perpetrated by intimate partners, acquaintances, or strangers. In the online space, GBV includes body-shaming, threats of physical violence, and verbal abuse. The use of online channels like websites, social media, and instant chat platforms like WhatsApp make it easy for bullies to spread negative messages about women, girls, and LGBTQ+ persons. The situation becomes more upsetting when the bullying is done by social media influencers with large followings and the power to shape narratives around gender norms in society.

Currently, online GBV disproportionately affects women, girls, and LGBQT+ persons in the form of body-shaming, verbal abuse, threats of physical and sexual violence, and a general enforcing of negative gender stereotypes. The impact of psychological violence can be just as significant as that of physical forms of violence, as the perpetrator subjects the victim to behaviour which may result in some form of psychological trauma, such as anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.

What are some practical solutions?

Establishing norms around social media use

The lines between free speech and bullying have blurred, and some perpetrators might argue that they were simply exercising their right to freedom of speech. Currently, there is no C