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A Pandemic within a Pandemic: Policy Responses to Gender-Based Violence (GBV)

Written by Kamvalethu Miza


In 2020, the South African government launched a ten-year National Strategic Plan on Gender-based Violence and Femicide (NSP-GBVF). In the preface, South African President, Cyril Ramaphosa stated:


“The unacceptably high levels of gender-based violence and femicide in South Africa are a blight on our national conscience, and a betrayal of our constitutional order for which so many fought, and for which so many gave their lives.


South Africa holds the shameful distinction of being one of the most unsafe places in the world to be a woman. We have amongst the highest rates of intimate partner violence, and recently released data from Statistics SA show that rape and sexual violence have become hyperendemic.”


To address the problem of GBV, the plan sought to establish a comprehensive policy framework and foster a national response in coordination with civil society. The plan recognised the diverse needs and challenges faced by different demographic groups, seeking to meet the needs of women of different ages, sexual orientations, and gender identities, as well as women with disabilities and migrant women.


In September 2021, three new laws were passed with the aims of improving the criminal justice system’s response to GBV; enhancing protection for survivors; and strengthening prevention strategies. In addition, President Cyril Ramaphosa pledged that the national government would earmark R1.6 billion to counter GBV.


Although there appears to be political will at the national level to address the issue, challenges related to insufficient funding, budgetary limitations, and a lack of collaboration and effective coordination among government departments, have hindered progress in implementing the GBVF-NSP. Training among police and government departments on the legislative changes has been inadequate. Too few GBV desks have been established at police stations and too few rape kits have been provided. Meanwhile, shelters which are supposed to care for survivors of GBV have lacked funding support.


The Commission for Gender Equality (CGE) faced resistance and a lack of cooperation from government departments as it sought to assess the effectiveness of official efforts to counter GBV. There was a lack of clarity about who was responsible for driving the national strategic plan and its implementation was found to be patchy or non-existent. There was also a lack of transparency in relation to the use of the funds that had been allocated to implementing the plan.


In the Eastern Cape, Premier Oscar Mabuyane pledged to expedite several initiatives, including the establishment of a DNA lab; improved training for healthcare and security personnel; better reporting mechanisms for individuals with disabilities; mentorship programmes for boys and young men; and increased involvement of churches and traditional leaders in combating GBV.


Impact of Covid-19 on GBV and official mitigation responses in the Eastern Cape


Under Covid-19, as rates of GBV reportedly rose, resources and attention allocated to addressing the problem were diverted, according to Farida Myburgh, a programme manager at Masimanyane Women’s Rights International (MWRI) located in East London, Buffalo City. Myburgh is also a member of the Interim Steering Committee of the NSP-GBVF and part of a non-profit organisation (NPO) seeking to empower and educate youth, through awareness campaigns; community engagement; training; and reproductive health support.

Figure 2: Gender-Based Violence support organisation in Buffalo City Eastern Cape (Visit their website to learn more: https://www.masimanyane.org/)


Myburgh said that the NPO had seen an increase in calls during the pandemic and questioned the effectiveness of the police’s response to reported cases of GBV, as the focus of law enforcement agencies shifted towards Covid-19. She said that survivors had been compelled to coexist with the perpetrators of GBV during the lockdown, which had rendered them increasingly vulnerable and had made it more difficult for them to seek help.


In response to the challenges faced, women’s organisations called for greater recognition of GBV as a pervasive crisis requiring immediate action, emphasising the need to declare it a “pandemic” in its own right. They expressed frustration at a perceived lack of urgency in addressing gender-based violence compared with Covid-19. In addition, in the context of potential abuse of power by the state during the pandemic, Myburgh has advocated for a balanced approach that upholds human rights while addressing public health concerns.


Challenges of Rebuilding after Covid-19


Limited funding at the national and provincial levels has affected GBV services and support. Non-profit organisations such as MWRI who played a crucial role in providing support to survivors during the pandemic, now continue to struggle with the ever-escalating demand for their services amid a lack of coordination between government and civil society to address the “pandemic within the pandemic”.


As South Africa seeks to rebuild in the post-pandemic era, addressing gender-based violence and femicide remains a priority. However, the delivery of effective interventions and support is impeded by funding cuts and a perception that GBV is not such an important issue. In addition, persistent implementation gaps and silo mentalities or tunnel vision within government departments stand in the way of a more integrated and coordinated approach.


In response, there needs to be greater awareness, understanding and implementation of the laws and regulations that were introduced to counter GBV. Transparency and more effective inter-departmental and inter-agency collaboration are essential to this process. In addition, monitoring mechanisms must be strengthened to ensure compliance and accountability.


Overcoming the challenges of the post-pandemic period requires a comprehensive, multi-faceted approach. There is a need to raise awareness and engage communities so that the cultural norms that perpetuate GBV can be effectively addressed. In addition, there is a need to bridge the gap in understanding between different generations in an effort to promote positive behavioural change. As part of such efforts, there is a need to make the relevant legislation available in multiple languages so that communities can access and understand their rights.


At the institutional level, the implementation of GBV-related policies needs to be prioritised and supported through the allocation of sufficient resources. Law enforcement officials, social workers and healthcare professionals need to be trained to handle GBV cases sensitively and effectively. In addition, collaboration among government departments, non-profits and communities is required to produce a holistic, integrated response to gender-based violence.


National Strategic Plan Link Below:

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