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Gender-based violence as a human rights violation - virtual panel discussion held
Author: Faculty of Law / Fakulteit Regsgeleerdheid
Published: 24/08/2020

The HF Oppenheimer Chair in Human Rights Law and the Transformation Committee of the Stellenbosch University Law Faculty hosted a well-attended virtual panel discussion on gender-based violence as a human rights violation on the 19th of August.

Professor Sandra Liebenberg, the current incumbent of the chair, facilitated the panel discussion that took place as an online webinar to mark the importance of Women's Month. The panellists who participated reflected the multifaceted approach necessary to address gender-based violence (GBV). They ranged from legal experts to those playing a leadership role in social mobilisation, gender policy and religious organisations to advance alternative masculinities and respect for the rights of LGBTIQ+ persons.

Liebenberg introduced the discussion by drawing attention to the alarming rates of gender-based violence and femicide in South Africa.  Over the past year, 2695 women and 943 children were murdered in South Africa, which means that a woman is murdered every three hours on average. Last year, 53 000 sexual offences were reported to the police, meaning an average of 146 sexual offences are committed daily.

From a legal perspective, Liebenberg noted it was important to recognise the complexities that underlie gender-based violence. For this reason a diverse panel of speakers were assembled that could offer insights into the different facets of the struggle against gender-based violence.

Professor Bonita Meyersfeld, who is a human rights lawyer, academic, and advocate of the high court of South Africa, was the first panellist. Her discussion focused on international law and the constitutional obligations of South Africa to address gender-based violence.

According to Meyersfeld, international law, such as the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, contains appropriate standards to address gender-based violence. The reality is, however, that the legal system stigmatises victims of gender-based violence and does not practically reflect the relevant international law and constitutional values. For example, witness-reliability is a cornerstone of adversarial systems, but does not adequately consider that victims who testify may experience shame or trauma during their testimony. Ultimately, Meyersfeld called for approaches and disciplines to supplement a legal approach, and that the legal response must put the constitutional value of accountability at the forefront.

Ms Mandisa Khanyile, a gender activist and the Fundraising Director of Rise Up Against Gender Base Violence described the various initiatives to mobilise against GBV, including the #TheTotalShutdown Movements, and community and civil society participation in the drawing up of the National Strategic Plan on Gender-Based Violence and Femicide. She also described the experiences of Rise Up in responding to GBV during the national lockdown.

Khanyile called for institutions to adopt a survivor-centred approach to address gender-based violence, and for the private sector also to be held accountability for its role in perpetuating a culture apathetic to gender-based violence. She reminded lawyers and law students of the vital role that community-based responses play in creating a social consciousness that can shift attitudes against gender-based discrimination and violence.

Adv Bronwyn Pithey of the Women's Legal Centre reflected on the role of law in addressing gender-based violence. She argued that, comparatively, relevant South African legislation is progressive and based on human rights norms and values. The figures, however, point to a severe disparity between the letter of the law and the actual practice thereof. In 2018/2019, there were 52 420 reported sexual offences, but only 6 346 of the sexual offence cases were prosecuted and 4724 were found guilty. This represents a conviction rate of only 9,01% for the total number of sexual offences cases reported to the police, and 90% of reported sexual offence cases are “lost". She noted that these statistics suggest that women who report gender-based violence cases are not generally taken seriously or believed in the criminal justice system. There is a need to actively address the deep systemic issues and stigmas in how gender-based violence is investigated, prosecuted and adjudicated.

In her address, Ms Joy Watson, who is a Senior Researcher on social equity at the South African Parliament, focused on the adequacy of budgetary responses for GBV responses and the recently adopted policy to deal with gender-based violence in the post-school education and training sector. She highlighted a concern that the interventions identified in the National Strategic Plan has not been appropriately costed. Without adequate budgetary support, many programmes and initiatives against GBV will not be implemented properly. She also emphasised the responsibility of post-school and further training institutions in helping to embed a social consciousness on the part of students in relation to issues of gender equality and freedom from violence.

To conclude the panel discussion, Mr Hanzline Davids, of Inclusive and Affirming Ministries (I AM) and a doctoral candidate at the Faculty of Theology, focused on the strategies to counter patriarchal and toxic masculinities. He called for a broadening of our conception of gender-based violence as extending beyond cis-gendered women to include trans-persons and non-binary persons. In relation to religious institutions, there was a need for practical mechanisms to create open and safe spaces for thinking about responses to gender-based violence and toxic masculinities, such as contextual bible studies.

According to Liebenberg, the Webinar highlighted the systemic and intersectional forms of disadvantage and power relations that fuel gender-based violence. She thanked the panellists for highlighting the role of law, social mobilisation and deep personal and institutional transformation in helping to overcome the scourge of GBV.

  • This article by Christiaan Van Schalkwyk