On October 9, the dead bodies of six women, who earned an income as sex workers, were discovered tied up in Johannesburg, some of them in advanced state of decomposition. This was unfortunately not a one off. Women face violence and fear murder daily in South Africa, and sex workers face increased risks, not least because their work is still criminalized despite decades of advocacy by rights groups.
The second Presidential Summit on Gender-Based Violence and Femicide (GBVF) on November 1 and 2 presented an opportunity to honestly reflect on South Africa’s successes and challenges for tackling widespread gender based violence in the country. The first Presidential summit in 2018 was convened after civil society organizations and activists organized the #TotalShutdown march to protest against the rising GBVF.
That summit was aptly themed ‘Accountability. Acceleration and Amplification, NOW!’, given that, despite steps taken by the government, women were still facing high rates of violence, including murder, with very low conviction rates. Most promises made in 2018 remain unfulfilled four years later.
Once again, at the second summit, all the right things were said. Important steps have been taken, but for new laws and new promises of funding and better policy to be successful we need to see more transparency and significant government resources committed to carrying them out.
President Cyril Ramaphosa highlighted the key new laws and policies in his address to the Summit.
These include the adoption of the National Strategic Plan in 2020, and the September 2021 amendment to the 1998 Domestic Violence Act, to make it easier for victims to get protection orders. In January, authorities amended a raft of laws - the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Act, the Criminal and Related Matters Amendment Act, the Domestic Violence Amendment Act, and the Criminal Law (Forensics Procedures) Amendment Act, all aimed at strengthening efforts to address gender-based violence.
However, the statistics make it blatantly clear that so much more remains to be done. The president rightly pointed out that gender-based violence and femicide are is still rampant. South African Police Services’ statistics released in August show a 13 percent increase in reported cases of sexual offences and rape between 2017/18 and 2021/22, and a 52 percent increase in the killings of women between the first quarters of 2021 and 2022. These are shocking numbers.
The President identified funding as a key challenge and called on the private sector to assist the government with funding. While the private sector and civil society groups have a role to play in fighting sexism and violence against women, the government bears the primary obligation to tackle this problem, including through laws, resources and enforcement.
The government did not use the summit to make a commitment for clear steps to implement the ambitious National Strategic Plan. It did not make a firm commitment nor did it say how funds would be provided for priority services and for tracking, transparency and public accountability for its use. How is the government going to finance all Thuthuzela Care centres, Sexual Offences courts and GBVF desks within police stations to make sure they are functional? The President only mentioned the allocation in February 2021 of approximately R21 billion over three years to carry out the strategic plan, an amount that the National Treasury itself considers insufficient.
An Inter-Ministerial Committee to coordinate efforts against GBVF across government departments was established after the 2018 summit. But during the second Presidential summit, civil society groups said that departments were not cooperating with one another or even submitting required reports to the Office of the President on the steps they have taken to combat gender-based violence. Some groups and survivors remain concerned about the effectiveness of this committee and how to improve inter-ministerial cooperation and reporting.
The president spoke about the need to redefine masculinity and to address the role of men in the fight against gender-based violence and stressed the importance of education, dialogues, outreach and awareness-raising activities. However, the summit did not lay out any concrete plan for these initiatives.
The summit reflected the Strategic Plan’s intersectional approach by including sessions on women of all ages and experiences - girls, older women, sex workers, women with disabilities, lesbian, bisexual and transgender women, migrant women, rural women and domestic workers. Speakers highlighted progress on some initiatives such as the bill to decriminalize sex work, which is in consultation stage with the deputy justice minister and advocacy groups, and efforts to address the vulnerabilities faced by lesbians, bisexual and transgender women.
But the lack of clear timelines to carry out strategies and insufficient awareness among vulnerable groups, such as migrant women, of the remedies and recourses available to them remain a problem.
The messages from civil society and survivors remain clear: authorities need to tackle problems of insufficient resources, lack of justice for victims and survivors, and persistent and negative attitudes toward women and patriarchy. And the government needs to set and adhere to clear timelines to carry out the strategies outlined in the national strategic plan and to adopt the bill to establish a GBVF Council to address the issues. Women in South Africa cannot afford to wait four years and for another summit to get the protection they need right now.