16 Days of Activism: Time to act and stop empty speeches and promises - by Dr Bellita Banda and Prof Nomthandazo Ntlama

Read time: 6 mins

SA adopted a 16 Days of Activism campaign against gender-based violence in 1998 in response to the ideals of the community of nations.

It was done with a view to creating a nonviolent and nonsexist nation.

Little did we know that 22 years later our gender-based violence and femicide (GBVF) wounds would still be suppurating.

Daily acts of violence, intimidation and terror against women and children have devastating effects on the broader conception of human rights.

Ironically, over the years, themes such as #Count Me In: Together Moving a Non-Violent SA Forward, #HearMeToo: End Violence against Women and Children! and #Enough is Enough — 356 Days to End Gender-Based Violence and Femicide were adopted as innovative, and thought of as effective awareness campaigns to highlight the plight of women and children.

All these themes, including the 2020 theme “Women’s Economic Justice for a Nonviolent and Nonsexist SA” embrace one of the essential principles of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development which was adopted by SA in 2015.

Overall, the 2030 agenda aims to fortify the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), especially Goal 5, which hinges on achieving gender equality, empowering women and girls, ending discrimination and eliminating all forms of violence against them.

Fostering democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights with an emphasis on the rights of women and children are enshrined in the SA constitution, which establishes chapter 9 institutions such as the commission for gender equality.

However, SA's performance in relation to women’s economic participation is weak, ranking 92 out of 153 participating countries on the Global Parity Index. The closer GPI is to 1 the closer the country is in achieving parity. 

Judging by the current position of SA, it is explicit that redressing GBVF remains a pipe dream due to inequalities that continue to exist in health, education, economy and politics. These inequalities are a huge factor in fueling high levels of GBVF.

Recognising the relationship, the SA cabinet in March adopted the GBVF  National Strategic Plan (NSP) to redress violence against women and children.

Civil society has not been left out of the progress made, as it has remained a critical voice in the development of the core content of rights through advocacy, training, research and awareness programmes on human rights.

NGOs have guided important advocacy campaigns, increasing awareness about GBVF and calling people to respond to, protect from and prevent such violence.

Yet, GBVF continues to spread. Women and children are killed and raped in horrifying numbers and in the most dehumanising way.

Sadly, concrete solutions on how to dismantle the systems that support and drive the proliferation of GBVF — such as the impacts of apartheid, poverty, inequality, unemployment, patriarchal beliefs, women’s economic exclusion and, more recently, Covid-19 — are yet to be identified.

Instead, the increase in GBVF has been momentous.

Reflecting on the global history of human rights and their role in raising awareness about women’s and children’s rights  in a local context in post-apartheid SA, traceable from the brave women who marched on parliament in 1956, there appears to be a dislocation from the vision that inspired a worldwide recognition of women’s and children’s rights as fundamental human rights.

Progress in society is marred and thwarted by regressive propensities such as GBVF. Rural women, for example, are subject to a double-barrel experience of infringement of their rights as well as minimal information flow on the protection accorded to them through rights-orientated laws and institutions available to enforce their rights.

This year the aim is to promote women’s economic empowerment in the knowledge that this is integral to gender equality and eradication of GBVF.

GBVF has come to define our “normal” due to a host of violations of women  and children: rape, intimate partner violence, sexual harassment, gender discrimination, femicide and phenomena such as sex-for-jobs in the workplace and sex-for-marks in our learning institutions, the latter marring the right to education  for our girl children.

This year more than ever, the 16 Days of Activism against GBVF is a time for all South Africans to stand up and acknowledge that this war cannot be fought by a one-soldier army,  nor does it have to do with the race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation of those soldiers.

It is about SA acknowledging that GBVF is neither a government nor a criminal justice system problem, but a societal problem. In other words, the longer we turn a blind eye to our personal responsibilities, the longer all the efforts so far put in place to exterminate GBVF in our communities will be fruitless.

It is clear GBVF threatens the process of rebuilding the nation's peace and reconciliation process, not only for women and children but for all people of all races, as well as undermining our hard-won democracy itself.

We must ask some hard questions:

Has the state been able to establish an effective system of governance characterised by a rights based-approach?Has the state been able to strengthen its rights framework within the justice system?What strategies have been implemented to promote and monitor social cohesion and restoration of human dignity? 

In response to these questions, a need exists to:

Address weaknesses in effective implementation of the constitution;Ensure effective checks and balances;Eliminate impunity for violence against women and children;Embrace women and children’s rights as an intrinsic value of human rights, and protect, support women and children who report GBVF;Forge tools by all stakeholders and draw lessons from each other in the fight against GBVF;Tap into best practices from other African states on employment, housing, access to land and financial empowerment of women;Monitor and evaluate implementation of the GBVF National Strategic Plan in line with the Covid-19 pandemic; and Build capacity for law enforcement officials to address GBVF in a timely, sensitive, effective and lawful manner. 

In memory of our fallen grandmothers, mothers, sisters and children who were denied the most basic human right of all, the right to life, we cannot as a nation sit back  as the statistics of GBVF climb every single day.

GBVF is ranked as the second-highest killer in SA after HIV/Aids. SA is known for having the highest rate of intimate partner violence globally. In 2018/2019, 52,420 cases of sexual offences were reported. In 2019  statistics indicated  that  approximately every three hours a South African woman is killed. A shocking 2,900 women were murdered in 2019.

It came as no surprise that cases of GBVF  had skyrocketed with the Covid-19 lockdown in SA. A desolate picture was painted by police minister Bheki Cele,  who reported that police had received more than 87,000 GBVF complaints in the first week of the lockdown alone.   Among these statistics are assaults on LGBTQI+  community members,  who continue  to be victimised for their sexual orientation and gender identity.

Dare we ask, since President Cyril Ramaphosa declared earlier in the year that SA was dealing with two pandemics — Covid-19 and GBVF — if this is going to be another 16 Days of Activism against GBVF full of empty speeches and promises?

The time has come to develop strategies with alliance partners to eliminate GBVF through the lens of the rights framework.

Let us be part of the statistics of a South African society that is nonviolent and nonsexist and that respects the right to life for all. Together we can.

Dr Bellita Banda is a post-doctoral fellow and Prof Nomthandazo Ntlama is acting head of the Unesco Oliver Tambo Chair of Human Rights at the University of Fort Hare