Like HIV and AIDS, government needs to lead on gender violence

Date: December 6, 2009
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While President Jacob Zuma grabbled world headlines last week with his about turn on government’s HIV and AIDS policy, he has been conspicuous for his absence from the Sixteen Days of Activism that runs from 25 November (International Day of No Violence Against Women) to 10 December each year. Newspapers have been flooded with news of the fight against HIV and Aids under the banner “hope.” The same cannot be said about the fight against the twin scourge of gender violence.

Police sexual offences figures are being swelled by the arrest of sex workers while rapists get off scot free. There are still no official statistics on domestic violence, even though such a check box exists in police reports. NGOs struggle to keep places of safety open on a government subsidy of R40 per person per day. Government one stop centres and specialised courts are struggling and rely heavily on donor funding. Almost all the prevention work on gender violence is driven by NGOs with no government support. And there is no specific legislation on trafficking, despite the imminent threats posed by Soccer 2010.

These are just some of the revelations of a stock taking exercise undertaken by NGOs and technocrats away from the official razzmatazz of the campaign. The findings underpin a call made by 25 NGOs at meetings convened by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) and Gender Links for a major overhaul of the government’s March 2007 National Action Plan to End Gender Violence.

Taking a leaf from the HIV and AIDS prevention, treatment and support campaign which is finally bearing fruit, NGOs are stressing the need for a strong coordinating body like the South African National Aids Council that steps above the fray within government and harnesses all sectors of society. The call is in line with the UN Secretary General’s Unite to End Violence campaign that urges governments to establish strong multi sector strategies, and the target set by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Protocol on Gender and Development for halving gender violence by 2015.

Much has been written on the 12% increase in sexual offences cases from 63 818 to 71,500 in the annual crime statistics released in September following the Sexual Offences Act of December 2007 that has a much broader definition of such offences than before. But as director on information management services of the South African Police Services (SAPS) Chris de Kock cautions, 3385 of the “new” cases relate to the arrest of sex workers for “tempting, enticing, bothering or pestering with the purpose to commit an immoral or indecent act at a price.” On the other hand, only 10 clients and 17 brothel owners (now also criminalised under the act) were arrested during the same period.

The Medical Research Council estimates that only one in nine cases of rape are ever reported. A reading of the latest crime statistics suggests that far from the new act encouraging women to come out and report abuse, as has been the popular interpretation, they are again the primary victim of the criminal justice system

While police now have a tick box for domestic violence – a plea long made by activists – these statistics are neither presented nor analysed in the report, hiding behind such categories as “common assault” and “assault with intent to cause grievous bodily harm”.

A result, according to acting director of the Niisa Institute for Women’s Development Rowayda Halim is that it is almost impossible to plan effectively for shelters: “what we do know is that the 97 we have are woefully inadequate.” Government subsidies for running these shelters are a pittance, and take no account of the need for long term stays as well as helping women to get independent housing and work.

As Gugu Mofokeng a survivor of gender violence put it: “you cannot solve a life time of abuse through a few days stay at a shelter.” According to Kgone Masemola of Life Line, due to funding constraints the toll free line is only free on landlines (not cellphones, which are in much more common use); the service closes after 9 pm (when violence often takes place) and there is no way to follow up on whether services referred to actually assist the callers.

Access to justice remains hugely problematic. South Africa has been feted globally for the one stop Thutuzela Centres where survivors can get treatment, counseling and report their cases under one roof. Where these have been linked to Sexual Offences Courts, up to 70 percent of cases have been successfully prosecuted, compared to the national average of 7 to 10 percent.

But according to Brendon Lawrence, senior state advocate in the Sexual Offences and Community Affairs unit of the National Prosecution Authority (NPA) only 57 of the 80 centres due to have been established by 2010 have been opened. These have in part been delayed by slow disbursements of funds from the Danish government. It is only recently that a “business case” is being made for the national treasury to allocate funds for an innovation that South Africa has, in the meanwhile, exported to ten other Southern African countries.

A further concern is the closure of over fifty Sexual Offences courts and parceling out of these cases to the regular courts over the last two years, as a result of a policy directive by the former minister of justice, Bridgette Mabandla. While this decision has since been reversed, it has resulted in even more delays and a reduction in conviction rates, Lawrence noted. The failure to enact specific legislation on trafficking (unlike six Southern African countries that have done so) by the host of the world’s biggest sporting event next year also suggests a lack of political commitment on a key issue.

In a paper on the 365 Day National Action Plan to End Gender Violence, head of monitoring and evaluation in the unit set up by the NPA to coordinate gender violence Ester Maluleke says that even the Inter Departmental Management Committee in government has no funding or official mandate: “It is very difficult to implement programmes without an allocation of dedicated funding for multi sector work.”

Coordination is complicated by the fact that the Sixteen Days of Activism has traditionally been located in the ministry of local government. Now there is also a ministry of women, children and persons with disabilities. The three key bodies in government concerned with gender violence held a one day review meeting on 25 November – International Day of No Violence Against Women – but failed to invite many NGOs and had a representative of the ANC women’s league chairing the civil society commission. Government has since sought to make amends by stating that it will convene a more inclusive review of the 365 Day National Action Plan to End Violence coordinated by the women’s ministry.

Such a move is long overdue. Like HIV and AIDS, nothing short of a sea change in government policy and commitment will reverse the statistics on gender violence. Understanding that both these scourges – the most serious violations of human rights post apartheid – stem from the common root of gender inequality in key. Addressing either in isolation, sequentially or in a way that fails to address the root cause will be a case of winning the battle but losing the war.

Colleen Lowe Morna is Executive Director on Gender Links. This article is part of the GL Opinion and Commentary Service that offers fresh views on every day news.




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