One thing that remains indisputable however – the numbers. The United Nations Women (UN Women) has compiled some jarring figures and facts that illustrate the sheer extent of the harm caused by gender-based violence.

Intimate partner violence – violence from a former or current partner/spouse – is the most common form of violence experienced by women globally. The most known statistic relating to gender-based violence is that one in three women, globally, have experienced physical or sexual abuse, mostly by an intimate partner. Our familiarity with this statistic indicates that this kind of violence is unabating – despite efforts. In 2017, 26 years after the world decided to tackle this problem, shockingly only two thirds of countries have outlawed domestic violence.

Furthermore, of the world’s 195 countries, a staggering 37 nations exempt rape perpetrators from prosecution when they are married to, or subsequently marry the victim. This means the victim must endure both the trauma of the rape, as well as that of living with the individual who violated both their physical and psychological integrity. Forever. In some countries, up to one third of adolescent girls report their first sexual experience being forced.

When it comes to human trafficking – which is literally the acquisition and exploitation of people – an overwhelming 71% of all trafficking victims are women and girls. Three quarters of that figure are sexually exploited. We are speaking of (modern day) slavery. Consider the case of American, Cyntoia Brown, now 29, who was a 16-year-old victim of sex trafficking in 2004 when she fatally shot a 43-year-old real estate agent who solicited sex from her, according to court documents. Her case has become international news and she is one of millions of young women forced into sex work worldwide. 

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) involves horrendous health risks, including death. Yet, up to 200 million women and girls have undergone FGM in the 30 countries where data is available. By the age of five, most girls have already been cut. Child marriage is another scourge for women and girls across the world. Almost 750 million women and girls were married before their 18th birthdays. Four out of 10 girls in West and Central Africa were married before 18, and one in seven before they were 15. The impact of this invariably is that these girls will no longer go to school, they lose their vocation and their right to make choices.

Closer to home, the most recent statistics released by the South African Police Service (SAPS), indicate that there has been a decrease of rape cases in the country compared to the previous annual recording period. The Institute for Security Studies (ISS) warned, however, that these statistics could not be considered as accurate due to the prevalence of under- reporting of intimate crimes such as rape.  In addition, the SAPS has yet to master the sensitive manner by which to address women and girls who approach police stations to report such offences. This fact is also true for most gender-based violations. The nature of gender-based violence is that it often occurs in the private sphere, where the expectation of privacy is at its highest. Far too many women do not report these offences and due to this, we may never really know the extent of the violence women experience daily. This is not limited to bodily violence, there is also the micro aggression experienced in public spaces such as on public transport and in our workplaces.

What these numbers, together with the events of this year have shown, is that the understanding of violence against women is an evolving one. Where once, rape and physical assault were the only reported or considered offences, the micro-aggressions of inappropriate language or unwanted advances are garnering traction. Violence is no longer limited to physical harm. The psychological impact is fast being equally recognised. Women are becoming more aware of their rights and are speaking out, thus empowering more to do the same. Perhaps, as this continues to happen, we may know the true extent of the damage in numbers caused to our society by gender-based violence. These numbers will allow more nuanced laws, policies and intervention efforts to address the scourge.

By Rebecca Sibanda: Legal Assistant, Centre for Constitutional Rights