The right to be free from violence is enshrined in the South African Constitution. Section 9 – the equality clause – proscribes gender-based discrimination – which is exactly what the 16 days campaign seeks to address – violence against a group of persons because of their gender and perceived weakness as a result. Section 12 further provides for the freedom and security of the person. The Constitution is buttressed in its endeavour to protect individuals – not just women – from the fear of harm by the passing of various laws. The Domestic Violence Act and the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters Act) Amendment Act are two such laws whose titles speak for themselves.

One of the most common global statistics relating to gender based violence is that one in three women worldwide has already or will experience physical violence in one form or another. This means that of every three women you know, at least once of them is a victim of gender-based violence. The Institute for Security Studies (ISS) has found that in addition, victims are often faced with the stigma of being somehow responsible for the harm that befalls them.

In a country already embattled with high crime rates that suggest a culture of violence as being the norm, it is not surprising that the prevalence of domestic violence is so prominent. The 2014/2015 Annual South African Police Report paints a dire picture for victims of gender-based violence. The biggest crime category to increase over the past year is sexual offences discovered as a result of police action. This includes offences such as charges for prostitution and possession of pornography. In the 2013/2014 period, 4 720 cases of sexual offences identified by police officers were reported. In the 2014/2015 period, this jumped 34.3% to 6 340 cases. The total number of sexual offences this year was 53 617, down from 56 680 last year. This could be attributed to a reluctance by victims to go to the police. The fear of further abuse at the hands of hospital staff and police officers discourages reporting. According to a study conducted by the ISS entitled ‘Domestic Violence in South Africa’, rape victims are likely to struggle for a long period of time with a justice system that draws the process on for lengthy periods. This, along with the financial reliance of the victim on the perpetrator, often leads to withdrawal of charges. These findings were echoed in 2012 in a briefing by the Department of Justice on the implementation of the Domestic Violence Act, in which the Portfolio Committee on Women in the Presidency were informed that 54% of victims withdraw charges.

The above is indicative of the need to sensitise the police service and educate it so that crimes of this nature do not go unaddressed. It is concerning that such a high number of sexual violence cases are committed by police officers, whose mandate is to protect the people. It is often said that many gender-based crimes are not reported due to the existence of an intimate relationship between perpetrator and victim. A reputation such as the one now attached to our police service can only serve to exacerbate the reluctance amongst victims to report crimes.

It would be remiss to limit this campaign to women and girls. The extension of this campaign to other vulnerable groups such the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Intersex (LGBTQI) community who are just as much victims of violence based on perceptions and understandings of the term ‘gender’ and sexuality. It would also be a mistake to assume that physical abuse means rape and assault in the common sense. This violence comes in different shapes and forms. From verbal abuse to female genital mutilation, although the latter is not widely reported in South Africa 

All this therefore requires a holistic approach in order to address both the victims and perpetrators of such violence. Often, alcoholism and drug abuse are among the factors which contribute significantly to violence against vulnerable groups. The failure to foster a human rights culture in civil servants and the miseducation of children about their roles in society is said to lead to the maltreatment of others.

Whilst there is no doubt that there is sincere engagement with the issue from various fronts such as the Department of Women in the Presidency and non-governmental organisations, these movements are still quite invisible to those who need it most.

It is however, not all doom and gloom on this front. The Department of Social Development’s Gender-Based Violence Command Centre is a 24-hour call centre established in 2014 to provide support and counselling to victims of gender-based violence. The Centre has since been recognised regionally and internationally for its innovative approach and excellence in combatting gender-based violence. It has won a number of internationally acclaimed awards such as the Innovation Award in the Contact Centre Management Group (CCMG) Awards 2015, Changing Lives Award Category in the Africom Awards 2015 and the Gold Medal at Global Best Contact Centre Awards recently held in the United States.

While there is a growing awareness, thanks in part to campaigns such as ‘16 Days of Activism against Violence against Women’, more needs to be done. It is time to take more robust stance – complete with punitive action – to emphasise a zero-tolerance attitude to violence against vulnerable groups in order to achieve an equal society based on human dignity, as envisaged by the Constitution.

By Rebecca Sibanda: Intern, Centre for Constitutional Rights