Political parties sidestep violence against women

Political parties sidestep violence against women

Date: May 21, 2014
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Political parties in South Africa lack concrete strategies to address violence against women, a problem facing a huge number of their constituents and a significant challenge to the country’s development. This was the message to political party representatives at a debate organised by Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre, Women’sNet and the Political Studies Department of Wits University earlier this month in Johannesburg. The debate challenged political parties to explain to voters ahead of the 22 April elections concrete measures they plan to combat rape and domestic violence.

Community-based prevalence studies suggest that domestic violence affects as many as one in two women in some parts of South Africa. The South African Police Service report for 1 April 2007 – 31 March 2008, reports that 182, 588 violent crimes were committed against women. Yet, statistics tell half the story. One study found that only one in nine women rape survivors report to the police.
While each party representative flourished much of the right rhetoric, the insubstantial and largely simplistic nature of their parties’ positions was apparent once the floor opened for questions. For example, asked how they would address the economic and material deprivation that pushes some women into sex work, the African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) proposed the introduction of sewing groups.
The African National Congress (ANC) sidestepped questions of why they dismantled the specialist Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Offences (FCS) Unit, while simultaneously pronouncing such crimes a priority. Both the Freedom Front Plus and the ACDP favoured reintroducing the death penalty for certain rapes – which drew a mixed response from the audience.
Other proposals included establishing women’s courts staffed only by women and ensuring that abusive men, rather than women and children, leave the home. There are critiques for every one of these positions, but for let’s look at the last one, since it exemplifies the lack of forethought in many party responses. 
Obviously, ideally the courts would evict the abuser from the home, but in reality, they are reluctant, particularly when the couple co-habits in a house registered in his name. To become reality, parties would need to prioritise the finalisation of legislation around domestic partnerships. Not one party manifesto proposes such legislative reforms.
Further, in some instances, it is too dangerous for women to remain at known addresses; for safety, they must disappear. An audience member resident at the shelter hosting the debate challenged parties to ensure women fleeing their homes have access to shelters
Only the Congress of the People’s (COPE) manifesto recognised the need to increase the number of “special care” facilities for women in abusive relationships. However, during the debate, the United Democratic Movement (UDM) committed itself to examining laws around property rights preventing evicting abusive men, while the Independent Democrats (ID) committed to examining funding service organisations and shelters.
Political parties need to recognise the current failure of the justice system to cope with violence against women. A random, representative study of 2,068 rape cases reported in Gauteng in 2003 found that half of reports led to arrests (50.5%) but only 42.8% of suspects appeared in court. Trials commenced in less than one in five cases (17.3%) and a conviction resulted in just over 1 in 20 (6.2%) cases. Some convictions were for lesser charges, so overall only 4.1% of cases reported resulted in convictions for rape.
First-time women voters met party promises with some skepticism. Observed a 20-year-old who identified herself as Maninas, "They only talked about how they could change things if we vote for them. Why don’t they start now with those changes?"
Sarah, another young first-time voter, was very clear about her expectations. "All I can say to the parties is that if they want our political system to be strong, then they should at least start by drafting down properly all the stuff that they are going to address in public. ‘Cause the promises they make will determine the future of their party."
With the exception of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the ANC, party representatives were largely unfamiliar with the issues and out of their depth. No party manifesto adopted a multi-dimensional response to violence against women that went beyond the parameters of the criminal justice system alone.
While almost all parties responded to the legal dimensions of violence in a more or less inadequate fashion, responses to the societal, economic and material dimensions were almost entirely absent from their manifestoes. Not one party recognised the unique circumstances and needs of marginalised groups of women experiencing violence, including sex workers, undocumented female migrants and refugees, women with disabilities or lesbians (to name a few).
Considering that Southern African Development Community (SADC) Heads of State committed themselves to halving gender violence by 2015 when they signed the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development last August, the lack of planning at the national level on the issue is concerning.
Gender activists are also concerned about what a Jacob Zuma presidency would mean for women and issues of gender violence. Even putting aside previous rape charges brought against him and questions of whether polygamy and gender equality can co-exist, activists argue that the conduct of the rape trial and stigmatising treatment of the woman involved undoubtedly further reduced women’s confidence in coming forward.
Similiarly, bystanders will recall a group of taunting men singing Umshini Wami (also sung repeatedly during the rape trial) during a protest organised by the Progressive Women’s Association following the stripping and sexual violation in February 2008 of Nwabisa Ngcukana at Noord Taxi Rank. The song, clearly associated with Zuma, refers literally to a machine gun but, carries a double implied threat of both shooting and rape, making a starling connection between the hostilities evoked in 2006 by the rape trial and the attack.
Encouragingly, party representatives invited the audience to challenge and hold them accountable on gender violence. They proposed regular debates, not only at election time, where they could engage with civil society on the issues.
Whether this is anything more than a promise made in the heat of electioneering remains to be seen. Such engagement is crucial on at least two counts: it is a test of parties’ commitment to the creation of substantive policy to prevent and combat violence against women, as well as an indication of whether women are more than mere voting fodder at election time.
Lisa Vetten is a researcher and policy analyst at Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre to End Violence Against Women and Sally Shackleton is Executive Director at Women’s Net. To obtain a copy of the review of party manifestoes, please visit www.tlac.org.za This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service which offers fresh news on every day news.
Parties represented at the debate included: 
African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP), Thembela Papu; African National Congress (ANC), Premier Edna Molewa; Congress of the People (COPE), Constance Mantai; Democratic Alliance (DA), Janet Semple; Freedom Front Plus, Louwretta Jacobs; Independent Democrats (ID), Rose Gudlhuza; Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), Sibongile Khomo; United Democratic Movement (UDM), Thandi Nontenja; Women Forward (WF), Nana Ngobesi-Nxumalo

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