Current Affairs

The twin pandemics: gender based violence during the times of coronavirus in South Africa

Gender-based violence is not a new problem in South Africa, but it has reached a fever pitch during the Covid-19 pandemic, with hundreds breaking lockdown restrictions to grieve the violent murder of Tshegofatso Pule, a 28 year old pregnant woman, in early June. The president Cyril Rampahosa addressed the nation in response, and last year pledged a further $75M in order to address the gender-based violence pandemic. The problems, however, are far more culturally and systematically entrenched, requiring solutions which reach beyond just legislation and funding, a challenge all the more exposed during the Coronavirus pandemic.

Despite having fairly progressive legislation around gender-based violence, South Africa continues to report some of the highest rates in the world. Police data suggests that there has been a 4.6% decrease in sexual offences between 2016-2019, however, it is important to note that sexual offences are not the only form of gender-based violence. This data also shows that domestic violence is the 3rd highest causative factor in murders, and one study also points out that these statistics are not independently audited, and so cannot always be taken at face value. 

It has been suggested by several scholars and activists that these problems are a cultural and systemic byproduct of the apartheid era in South Africa. It is difficult to quantify the impact that apartheid may have had on gender role, but Tameshnie Deane suggests that the infantilizing and oppressive nature of apartheid on Black South Africans may have resulted in the higher levels of male aggression that gender-based violence is built on. The problem is cyclical, with ¼ participants of the Guateng Province study stating that they had witnessed the abuse of their mothers in childhood. This pervasiveness of violence in society may explain why gender-based violence has proven such a difficult problem for legislators and politicians to fight. 

Putting more money into policing and legislation may help fight the problem, but fails to address the root causes. Gender-based violence in South Africa is a systemic and cultural problem, not a purely legislative one. The problem starts with the underreporting of crimes; a study focusing on Guateng province suggests that only 1 in 25 rapes were reported to the police. This may be in part due to police failings that the increased funding may addressed; the same study suggests that in 2011, only 9.8% of police stations were compliant with the Domestic Violence Act, and that there was a widespread absence of personnel, resources and facilities to deal with gender-based violence. 

The underreporting of crimes is also reflective of a culture of silence and gender expectation. South Africa, like many societies, has patriarchal constraints deeply ingrained in its way of life. The Guateng study also asked the 1000 participants about their expectations of gender roles, and revealed that 86.7% of men felt that women should obey their husbands, and only 55.1% felt that women could be raped by those they were married to. The perpetration of these gender roles goes both ways, with a 2018 study suggesting that 59% of women felt that sexually violent men appeared powerful. This data makes it crystal clear that the cultural perception of gender roles ingrained in South Africa is a huge causative factor in gender-based violence that current legislation fails to address. Putting more money into the system can only go so far when the perpetration of gender- based violence is supported by ingrained cultural gender biases. 

The initial spike of gender-based violence at the start of lockdown is likely to be a result of the inability for women to reach support systems, and clinics have reported worries about accessing PPE for performing rape kits and other procedures on victims. Before the pandemic, however, there were signs that things were improving. Several community-based projects, for example saferspaces, had been set up to confront the cultural causes behind gender-based violence. This includes direct community intervention such as earlier education about consent and violence in schools (several sources suggest that the problems begin in adolescence) and groups set up for men to openly discuss the pressures and thoughts that they feel lead them to violence. With Covid-19, however, many of these initiatives have been indefinitely postponed. 

The Covid- 19 pandemic has proved a devastating reckoning to healthcare and social systems globally; in South Africa it has also halted the provision of vital community intervention and equipment to combat its inherent problem of gender based violence. As the case into the murder of Tshegofatso Pule moves to the High Court, it remains to be seen whether the vital community based measures required to challenge the endemic systemic culture of gender violence in South Africa will be taken up.

Sasha Mills

Sasha Mills (she/her) is a second year England Language and Literature student at St Hugh's. Outside of her degree, Sasha writes for the Blue, the Flete, Cherwell and the Isis. She particularly enjoys writing fact and interview led feature pieces. Sasha also enjoys portrait photography, hiking, and overthinking.