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Violence against women is raging in South Africa, data show

By
Nicole Girten
South African men and women protest gender-based violence outside parliament in Cape Town, South Africa, on June 30. File Photo by Nic Bothma/EPA-EFE
South African men and women protest gender-based violence outside parliament in Cape Town, South Africa, on June 30. File Photo by Nic Bothma/EPA-EFE

Nov. 25 (UPI) -- South Africa has a constitution that's revered for its commitments to human rights, but it's also a country with one of the world's highest rates of femicide -- the slaying of women on account of their gender.

Data released by the World Health Organization shows that 12.1 in every 100,000 women are victims of femicide, five times worse than the global average of 2.6. One in four women over 18 have experienced violence of some form from a partner in their lifetime, according to a 2016 Demographic Health Survey.

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This is a problem that has only accelerated in the country since the lifting of COVID-19 lockdowns. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said in a June speech, "The scourge of gender-based violence continues to stalk our country, as the men of our country declared war on the women."

The United Nations recognizes Nov. 25 as the Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, highlighting the statistics showing gender-based violence as among the most pervasive yet underreported crimes across the globe.

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In South Africa, what factors into the disparity between what is on the books and what is actually happening?

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According to the Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, an academic research organization based in Johannesburg, studies have found that police are less likely to intervene in cases of gender-based violence, as they are viewed as inter-relationship squabbles. This often results in the secondary victimization of the person reporting the crime.

Jackie Chauke, 49, was subjugated to secondary victimization by police on multiple occasions while she was attempting to escape her abusive husband in the Alexandra township in Johannesburg in 2011.

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Chauke's husband tracked her movements and the two were getting into arguments so intense that each of them vowed to kill the other. One day Chauke made the decision to leave. She exited her house with trash in hand to make it seem like she was just taking out the garbage. It was a guise to escape to a police station. She reported emotional abuse and requested to stay at a shelter. The officer initially did not understand what emotional abuse was and said he could not help her.

"He got stuck," Chauke said. "He did not know what to do with me."

In that vulnerable moment, Chauke said she felt unsupported.

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The officer eventually called over a captain who was familiar with a program where she was able to seek shelter and receive counseling. Chauke was thrilled when she saw her room for the first time.

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Women can seek refuge in shelters, like Chauke did, but are typically only permitted to stay up to three months. During the three months, the women have access to legal advice and counseling. But that ends when their time there is up.

"I've had survivors come back. We also have survivors who hop from one shelter to the other," said Jeanette Sera, who oversees operations at a shelter in a Johannesburg suburb run by People Opposing Women Abuse.

During her three-month stay at the shelter, Chauke had to return home to retrieve some of her clothes and personal items. She was escorted by police, who were intended to be there to protect her, however, they quickly accepted bribery from her husband.

One of the officers turned to her and said, "You have a beautiful home, you have a car, a business and your husband is very sweet and humble, why do you leave your relationship?" Chauke responded, "If you want to come and stay here, then take over."

She wasn't supposed to be left alone with her husband as she packed her things, but she was.

She didn't know what secondary victimization was at the time, but remembers feeling as though the officer wasn't on her side.

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The constitution of South Africa includes one of the most progressive and ambitious Bill of Rights, including rights to housing, equality of the sexes and human dignity.

Although this political goodwill is written into law, there is still a huge gulf between these aspirations and the reality on the ground.

"Implementation sucks," said Francesca Fondse of the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development.

Fondse, who works as the South African Champion for Women against GBV, Domestic Violence and Intimate Femicide, said that although South Africa has great laws on the books, because of a lack of implementation the situation hasn't improved. Over 60% of the South African Police Service personnel are men, according to the service's 2019 annual report. Fondse said that the average police officer is someone who left school to join the force.

"He's probably seen his own father abuse his mother," Fondse said. "We have to re-educate."

The domestic violence training police officers receive from the Department of Justice, Fondse said, is a top-down operation. The department trains upper, middle and lower management and in turn they are supposed to train the officers in their precincts. This used to be an annual training, though Fondse now believes it to be quarterly.

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The culture of machismo in the police force can disrupt the willingness of the officers to take the training seriously.

"It is difficult in some cases, where you have police officers that in their own personal lives abuse women," said Irvin Kinnes, an adviser to the South African Parliament's Portfolio Committee on Police.

Chauke said she eventually made the decision to move back into the house with her husband, living in a separate wing, and uses the skills she learned through counselling to keep her independence. She now works at ADAPT, a non-profit aimed at providing victims training and counseling, and works in a police station in Alexandra to give counseling to victims.

Chauke has seen the increase in women coming into the police station to report abuse since the lifting of the COVID-19 lockdown. There was a 1.8% increase in attempted murder and a 3.2% increase in sexual offenses from July to September of this year, compared to the same time in 2019, according to data released by the South African Police Service.

She said she feels extreme fatigue from handling an increasing number of cases in this current uptick.

"I'm so tired," Chauke said. "The statistics are crazy."

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Ramaphosa announced in September that three bills were being introduced to Parliament to help combat gender-based violence. The bills focus on tightening bail restrictions for perpetrators of sexual offenses, making the names on the National Register for Sex Offenders public and permitting protection orders to be completed online. Ramaphosa acknowledged in his statement that the barriers in the system make it incredibly difficult for victims to navigate.

"The sad reality is that many survivors of gender-based violence have lost faith in the criminal justice system," Ramaphosa wrote. "Difficulties in obtaining protection orders, lax bail conditions for suspects, police not taking domestic violence complaints seriously and inappropriate sentences have contributed to an environment of cynicism and mistrust."

Chauke acknowledged Ramaphosa's pushes to create change, but said she is tired of the inaction on the ground.

"Government is not enough," she said. "And we are not looking at government anymore because we need to do these things on our own."

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