The COVID-19 pandemic drew greater attention to the scourge of violence against women and girls (VAWG) in South Africa, but it also highlighted the spirit of ubuntu among citizens who made use of fourth industrial revolution (4IR) technology to reach out to those in distress.
The worldwide theme for this year’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, commemorated annually on 25 November, is ‘Orange the World: End Violence Against Women Now!’. This theme addresses the need to unite all networks in the physical and virtual sense – including the police, civil society, women’s rights organisation, universities, schools, governments, private sectors and individuals – to take action to end VAWG. The colour orange signifies a brighter future without violence.
Despite legislative and strategic plans, which include the latest National Strategic Plan on Gender-Based Violence and Femicide 2020–2030 in South Africa, we regularly hear of women being beaten to death, set alight and/or raped. The cases of Tshegofatso Pule (2020) and Uyinene Mrwetyana (2019), among others, are examples of what women in South Africa face. Crime statistics relating to VAWG necessitates precautionary analysis, as not all cases are officially reported to the South African Police Service (SAPS). A large proportion of cases are not reported by victims because of the entrenched stigma attached to sexual violence, and cultural and social norms that encourage staying in abusive relationships. Other factors, such as financial dependence on the perpetrator and lack of confidence in the criminal justice system, contribute to under-reporting. Non-reporting perpetuates the repeat of violence from generation to generation, with children bearing the brunt and ending up being abused or becoming the abuser.
It is disappointing to report that the World Population Review (2021) classifies South Africa as the most dangerous place to be a woman or girl. The COVID-19 pandemic further highlighted that the home environment poses the greatest threat for women and girls. The latest crime statistics (SAPS, 2021) show that almost 70% of rape incidents occurred at the home of the victim or the home of the rapist.
But rather than increasing incidents of VAWG, the pandemic drew greater attention to the magnitude of the problem. According to SAPS crime statistics, similar numbers of cases were recorded in 2019 (12 094) and 2021 (12 702), implying that the risk of VAWG existed but with limited publicity. The pandemic further exposed the already established difficulties in accessing the police, health services, social services and the justice system. It also showed that during national lockdowns South African authorities were not prepared with services for victims, as only 7 296 sexual offences were recorded by the SAPS in 2020. Hotlines such as Childline South Africa were active during the hard lockdown (late March to early May 2020), and recorded a more than 36.8% increase in calls for help compared to 2019 (UNICEF, 2020).
Men and boys are not exempt from violence; however, studies show that women and girls are at a greater disadvantage because men tend to abuse cultural practices and beliefs such as polygamy and ukuthwala in order to perpetuate VAWG. Misogyny, patriarchy, toxic masculinity and gender inequality also act as causative factors to VAWG.
VAWG is not just physical – it also includes sexual, verbal, emotional, economic, religious and psychological abuse and harassment, all of which are recognised in the Domestic Violence Act 116 (1998). Yet reported cases do not reflect sexual harassment or violence in the digital and social media context.
It is worth noting that during the COVID-19 pandemic, perseverance and resilience thrived in unprecedented situations. The philosophy of ubuntu is pertinent here, as South Africans showed a renewed sense of humanness, generosity and cooperativity. Ubuntu is a significant part of the political and social fabric of post-apartheid South Africa, and has the distinguishing characteristic of promoting the common good by building community through shared humanhood. We saw the spirit of ubuntu with civil society organising lockdown safety plans for victims of violence, and government converting state buildings into safe havens for abused women. However, many measures remain reactive – assisting the victim after they have endured violence.
Lockdown regulations saw a changing world amid the 4IR – a period of innovation in technology – which could act as an enabler for ubuntu to have greater reach and impact in addressing VAWG. With the rapid increase in internet connectivity, it is possible to shift support services and access to resources online as seen during lockdown. This could mean that women do not have to travel long distances to report sexual victimisation to SAPS or that educating young boys and girls about equality and constitutional rights can occur through innovative means.
The push to become technologically savvy can see women and girls move away from poverty, inequality and abuse. This involves the collective effort of all sectors to educate women and girls in order to benefit from the 4IR. In this way, the 4IR becomes an enabler of the principles of ubuntu by navigating a patriarchal system through promoting inclusivity, consultative and collaborative efforts not just to protect women and girls but to equip them with the power to independently overcome adversity.
Reema Nunlall is a Criminology lecturer in the Department of Social Work and Criminology at the University of Pretoria. The International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women is commemorated annually on 25 November.