Southern Africa: Gender violence still hinders women’s freedom
It seems incongruous that we celebrate Women's Month, yet stories of conflict and gender based violence (GBV) flood today's headlines. Whether it is the abduction of girls in Nigeria, the unending trial of Oscar Pistorius or the young woman raped and murdered last over the weekend because of her sexuality- the horrific immediacy of violence is all too apparent. Yet the majority of cases go unreported, unnoticed and justice is not served. It is also evident in conflict and post-conflict situations where rape is often used as a weapon of war. While everyone is vulnerable to violence, women and girls remain disproportionately affected.
While we honour the women who marched against the Apartheid pass laws in 1956 and the efforts of many individuals who have toiled towards improving the status of women, we also need to take a moment to reflect as we take stock of what we have achieved. This is particularly important at this time as we fast approach the 2015 deadline for the SADC Gender Protocol on Gender and Development target of halving GBV. We need to face up to the reality that twenty years into democracy, South Africa and the entire Southern African region remain a far cry from this ‘dream.'
GBV no doubt weakens the efforts toward all goals set out in the SADC Gender Protocol Studies by Gender Links in six countries of the SADC region reveal that GBV is pervasive, with the highest prevalence reported in Zambia, where 89% of women from the Kasama, Kitwe, Mansa and Mazubuka experienced violence in their lifetime. Meanwhile 86% of women in Lesotho, 68% of women in Zimbabwe, 67% of women in Botswana, 50% of women in South Africa (Gauteng, Limpopo, Western Cape and KwaZulu Natal) and 24% of women in Mauritius have experienced GBV.
Men on the other hand are affirming their hand in this violence: from 73% men in Zambia to 22% men in Mauritius reported perpetration of violence at least once in their life time. The studies further show that there is serious under-reporting of violence across the region, and the scourge thrives in this culture of silence and denial.
Studies also show that GBV is inextricably linked to gender inequalities. In the SADC region it is embedded in the patriarchal social system which perpetuates the subordination of women. According to a GL attitudes survey, while both men and women claim to believe in equal treatment between women and men, it is shocking and rather infuriating to learn that on average more than three quarters of men believe that a woman should obey her husband.
More saddening is the fact that equal proportions of women affirm this assertion.
Women and girls are expected to subservient at all stages of their life cycle and this comes with a hefty price tag- unequal access to all rights whether in the economy, in education and in the health sector- to name just a few. A study undertaken by Swedish International Development corporation Agency (SIDA) Zimbabwe revealed that responding to GBV costs about $2 billion in that country alone. That money could invested in more productive areas, such as infrastructure, business development, or education. The higher productivity that would result, from building a school rather than a jail, for instance, cannot be overemphasised. This underscores the urgent need for a paradigm shift to a more preventive approach. Although SADC generally enjoys peace, acts of conflict and related violence have been reported especially during elections and amid the widespread scramble for resources such as land water and jobs.
Thirteen SADC Heads of State signed a Protocol committing their countries to integrating gender firmly into their agendas, repealing and reforming all laws and changing social practices which subject women to discrimination. Linked to this is the obligation that all laws on violence against women (VAW) provide for the comprehensive testing, treatment and care of survivors of sexual offences which shall include emergency contraception, access to post exposure prophylaxis at all health facilities to reduce the risk of contracting HIV and preventing the onset of sexually transmitted infections. In line with international and continental instruments, the Protocol also commits member states during times of armed and other forms of conflict to take necessary steps to prevent and eliminate incidences of human rights abuses, especially of women and children, and ensure that the perpetrators of such abuses are brought to justice.
However, it is most unlikely that the target of enacting such legislative measures will be met by 2015, let alone that of halving GBV. One major shortfall in the current Protocol targets is the lack of specific indicators to measure governments' progress. Countries need to ensure that interventions designed to combat violence are based on accurate empirical data. This requires not just the compilation of accurate information, but also of indicators that make the data accessible for non-specialist decision makers and allow public scrutiny of interventions. There is a glaring policy gap in regards to the magnitude of sexual violence in conflict settings. Women in peace and security decision making are relatively few while crimes perpetrated during conflict are seldom viewed with a gender lens yet women often bear the brunt of political instability.
To date, 13 SADC countries have enacted laws on domestic violence and on sexual harassment. Eleven have laws on sexual assault and specific laws on human trafficking. While this is relatively commendable, a consistent pattern observed in many settings in Africa is that of robust policy formulation coupled by weak patterns of implementation, resulting in relatively weak knowledge of and use of services. It is one thing formulating and readjusting legislature and another for the legislature to effectively bring positive change in the lives of the beneficiaries. Studies undertaken in different settings globally have recorded that knowledge of VAW laws is generally low, more so among the women, the intended beneficiaries.
There has been a positive shift towards a victim empowerment approach with several governments and NGOs up-scaling support towards survivors of GBV. Fourteen countries now offer accessible, affordable and specialised services including legal aid to survivors of GBV. Thirteen countries offer places of safety to the survivors. However, the number of available structures in the region is outnumbered by the survivors. Places of safety and legal aid, where available, continue to be mainly offered through local NGOs. Generally governments have not committed sufficient resources towards these services.
Now is the time for all to take a step back and re-strategise regarding tackling GBV in the region. We need to put our heads together and work towards strengthening the post-2015 agenda as far as eliminating GBV is concerned. The existing targets need strengthening and we also need to review and add other relevant realistic targets accompanied by indicators that cover all forms of GBV including female genital mutilations and hate crimes towards the minority groups. Governments need to spearhead these efforts rather than leave it to NGOs.
Linda Musariri Chipatiso is Gender Link's Senior Researcher and Advocacy Officer. This Article is part of the Gender Links News Service Women's Month Special series, offering fresh views on everyday news.
By Linda Musariri Chipatiso
22 August 2014