25 November was designated by the United Nations General Assembly as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women because it is the anniversary of the assassination of the three Mirabal sisters, who were political activists in the Dominican Republic. The campaign concludes on 10 December, which is also International Human Rights Day. The campaign runs through World Aids Day on 1 December – which is also appropriate as women and children are among the main victims of the AIDS pandemic.
According to the United Nations (UN), violence against women is one of the most widespread violations of human rights. One in three women and girls have experienced some form of domestic abuse at some point in their lives. Some national studies reveal that up to 70% of women have experienced gender-based violence. Statistics also show that less than 4% of women in such situations ever report the violence due to the personal nature of the relationship between themselves and the perpetrator.
The UN is involved in mobilisation for this cause via the UNiTE to End Violence Against Women movement, founded in 2008 to raise public awareness and increase political will for the elimination of all forms of violence against women. The social media hashtag #orangeurhood references the official colour of the campaign and encourages international participation.
The issue of violence against women is so important that there are multiple platforms at which it is discussed. The UN Women Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action in its 20th year (2014), identified violence against women as a critical area deserving international attention. The Platform discussed measures to prevent, as well as eliminate violence against women. It also identified the need to study both the causes and the effectiveness of preventative measures. The elimination of human trafficking was also highlighted as an area needing attention.
The goals of this initiative include:
- Increasing the safety of women;
- Showing worldwide solidarity amongst women;
- Highlighting the nature of the prevalence of violence against women;
- Promoting women’s leadership;
- Lobbying governments; and
- Strengthening local work to tackle violence against women.
South Africa and Violence against Women
The South African Constitution makes provision for the protection of women. Section 9 – the equality clause – calls for the right to equal protection and benefit of the law and expressly forbids unfair gender-based discrimination. Section 12 provides for the freedom and security of the person, to which everyone – including women – is entitled. Moreover, in chapter 9, the Constitution established both the South African Human Rights Commission and the Commission for Gender Equality. Both Commissions are constitutionally mandated to promote respect for human rights. The latter, however, has a specific mandate to promote respect for gender equality and to protect, develop and attain gender equality as provided for in section 187(1) of the Constitution. In turn, section 187(2) provides certain powers to the Commission, including the power to “monitor, investigate, research, educate, lobby, advise and report on issues concerning gender equality“.
Violence against women and girls, whether in the public or private sphere, is a violation of the rights of both women and children. In addition to the Constitution, there are legislative safeguards available for the protection of this vulnerable group. Laws such as the Domestic Violence Act, the Children’s Act, the Maintenance Act, the Promotion of Equity and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act, as well as the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters Act) Amendment Act address the various ways in which violence against women and children takes place. Together, the Constitution and these laws should work holistically to protect the human dignity, self-worth, equality and the physical integrity of women and girls. However, given South Africa’s consistently high levels of gender-based violence, it is questionable whether institutions and legislation will solve the problem.
Parliament has also established two bodies whose agenda, among others, includes ensuring that government adheres to its constitutional obligations and that communities are aware and active in the battle against gender-based violence. The first is the Portfolio Committee on Women, Youth and People with Disabilities and the second is the Select Committee on Women, Children and People with Disabilities. Both these Committees deal with women and children and the obstacles they face.
South Africa stands in solidarity with the international community in participating in the 16 Days movement. Annually, multiple events are held, both at national and provincial level.
What can South Africans do in support of 16 Days?
- Wear a white ribbon, the internationally recognised symbol of support to end violence against women and children.
- Watch television broadcasts of topical speeches and discussions.
- Attend/ support events that focus on civic education and awareness building.
- Make a donation to an entity that supports and assists those affected by the violence.
In the past, women have largely driven the 16 Days of Activism alone. Recently, however, men have been invited to join in the campaign. The Minister in the Presidency responsible for Women, Susan Shabangu, rightly noted that whilst victim-oriented activism is good, it is important to involve those responsible for inflicting the harm. Mobilisation of only half of the community can only go so far. When the entire community comes together to support a cause, the effects are guaranteed to be more far-reaching. Whilst her remarks were met with ambivalence due to the undertone of patriarchy with which her speech was punctuated, the overall message rings true.
It must be noted, however, that despite intensive activism, the scale of gender-based violence remains incredibly high – and this is only considering cases that are reported. This may be because domestic violence is not a stand-alone issue. It is connected to alcohol and drug abuse, poverty, and the manner in which violence has been a dominant feature in the history of South Africa. There is a clear need to rethink the way that we approach the prevention of violence against women and girls. We need an integrated campaign that targets all the societal problems that contribute to the prevalence of domestic abuse. This includes a criminal justice system that effectively responds to violence against women and children, and a society that not only denounces these human rights violations, but also actually refrains from committing them. In the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu: “It is by standing up for the rights of girls and women that we truly measure up as men.“
By Rebecca Sibanda: Intern, Centre for Constitutional Rights
[Photo: United Nations]