Gender-Based Violence (GBV) – the silent pandemic

Written by Staff Writer


By Mbuyiselo Botha, Commissioner at Commission for Gender Equality (CGE)

The world has been hit by an unprecedented, brutal and tragic pandemic, which has left bare the world’s insufficiencies when it comes to dealing with inequality. In South Africa, the impact has been especially severe, considering the already stark reality of inequality we are still battling – long into our democracy.

A Gendered Crisis?

But it is the gendered aspect of COVID-19 which I would like to focus on here. Due to the way our society is structured, this pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on women. Traditionally, it is women who carry water to homes in areas that do not have access to running water, it is women who look after the sick, while also ensuring that there is food on the table.

Women do not only represent the majority of workers in the health sector in the world, but they are said to do three times as much unpaid care work at home as men, according to UN Women. In addition, women are at the receiving end of increased abuse, due to the pandemic confining them at home, with their abusers, for longer periods of time than usual.

With law enforcement increasingly focusing and diverting more of its attention toward ensuring that South Africans abide by the stringent measures placed on our society during this period – especially during the earlier, stricter lockdown levels – the question is: What effect will this have on women and gender-based violence?

Material Effects on Women in SA

And indeed, this pandemic has shown to have a material effect on women, who have experienced an increased rate of abuse as a result. During lockdown Level 5, the national Gender-Based Violence Command Centre is said to have received triple the number of calls from women who were trapped with their abusive partners at home. This is echoed by one of the findings of the 2020 multi-country study on the ‘Emerging effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on gender-based violence in Africa’ conducted by Men Engage and Sonke Gender Justice. The study found that “before COVID-19, for majority of the respondents the frequency of violence incidents was either indicated as ‘once’ or ‘a few times’ with 67%, 80%, 62% and 18% of responding females from Cameroon, DRC, Kenya and South Africa respectively indicating that the frequency was ‘a few times’. Majority of the females in all countries indicated that abuse happened ‘many times’ after the pandemic began.

Additionally, the difference in severity of abuse between the period before and during COVID-19 was noticeable with the majority of the respondents, 47%, 36% and 80% of the female respondents in Cameroon, DRC and South Africa respectively indicating that the abuse was severe after the lockdown measures were instigated”.

According to UN Women, the risk of family violence tends to increase as strategies, such as self-isolation and quarantine, are implemented. Furthermore, UN Women states that, resources are diverted away from services that women hugely need during such crisis periods – as seen during outbreaks of diseases such as the Ebola and Zika viruses. Women in our country, and the world, live in constant danger, and this danger is at risk of heightening as resources and personnel meant to safeguard women are redirected towards the pandemic – possibly leading to women being increasingly unable to fully access safety and support structures, which already do not come easily on any normal day.

The economic impact will also be gravely felt by women. Women are found within the informal economy which was/is hugely compromised, as people stay home and some businesses pause operation, as we have seen in the media. When not in the informal economy, women work in environments characterised by precarious working conditions, job insecurity and unfair pay. These work environments usually neglect labour laws and have abhorrent labour practices that will leave them even more vulnerable, as companies close down or downsize – and some doing so without paying workers, ignoring the labour directives given by the president. These workers are the very same people who run households, meaning entire homes will have their basic needs hugely compromised.

A crisis such as this puts strain on the many citizens who are already on the periphery of society. One day, if we are to face such a tragedy again, I hope we will have dealt with the many interconnected factors that impact our country’s ability to adjust in times of a pandemic such as this. Pregs Govender, former Human Rights Commissioner and Deputy Chairperson of the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), put it perfectly when she said, “SA’s success in ‘flattening the curve’ of this global pandemic rests on recognising political, civil, economic, social, and cultural human rights as interdependent, indivisible and universal”.

Looking Ahead

These are the quandaries we are faced with, when we fail as a country, to proactively deal with socio economic issues. When a pandemic hits, we hurryingly devise interim measures meant to deal with the crisis at hand. It is quite scary to think of the possible impact on our country when countries with economies and infrastructures way ahead of ours are struggling to contain and deal with this crisis. I do, however, believe our president and our health minister have done well in appropriately responding and showing considerable leadership.

Do not get me wrong, this crisis affects us all, but like all things, some will feel the effects more harshly than others, because of their socioeconomic positionality and because of their gender. We cannot afford to have a gender-neutral approach to pandemics. Our society is gendered, our economy is gendered and so is the experience of daily living.

We therefore need to have this in mind when we respond and it starts by being proactive, during ‘normal’ times.



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