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Gender-based violence and human rights
Author: Dr Jill Ryan and Werner van Kerwel
Published: 14/12/2021

Violence against women has increased significantly worldwide but has reached pandemic proportions in South Africa. Though there has been a concerted effort within our legislative climate to strengthen judicial response and access for victims, as per the recently amended laws aimed at Gender-based violence (GBV)[i], we continue to see escalating rates of violence. Violence against women and children has constantly been highlighted as an issue of concern, which is to be understood where an intimate partner murders 1 in 4 women[ii]. Child abuse and neglect hold a significant contribution to the death of children under the age of 5[iii].

However, violence is found to be pervasively interwoven into the spaces where all vulnerable and marginalised groups find themselves. These groups, which include people with disabilities, the elderly, refugees and asylum seekers, undocumented migrants, and many LGBTQIA+ individuals, are often overlooked and underserved due to ambiguous understanding of the law (such as sheltering undocumented persons) failed implementation. Furthermore, it is unquestionable that violence and marginalisation have seen a substantial increase amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, these increased acts of violence and poor implementation of prevention strategies and adequate response display a continuous violation of our fundamental human rights. Human rights are upheld in our national constitution and ratified international and regional commitments.

During the 16 days of activism, the last day of the campaign commemorates International Human Rights Day, which allows for serious reflection when one considers what human rights are meant to afford us, contrary to the level of violence we currently face.

Gender-based violence is recognised as a transgression on an international level in violating rights outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights ("UDHR"). Violence against women is a violation of Article 3 of the UDHR that provides the right to life, liberty and personal safety. Furthermore, Article 5 of the UDHR stipulates one's freedom from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. It is clear from the UDHR that the most fundamental human rights seek to protect the dignity of individuals in society and safeguard human lives from degradation and unfair treatment, contrary to what we see in GBV.

South Africa has ratified numerous international and regional commitments, calling for the protection of vulnerable persons through capacitating development, addressing inequality, providing social protection, targeted healthcare, and ultimately the elimination of violence. Some of these commitments include the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights (African Charter), the Social Policy Framework for Africa, the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (the Maputo Protocol) amongst many others. Much of what is described in the above-mentioned treaties and obligations, are incorporated in the Constitution of South Africa under the Bill of rights. Nationally, laws directed at GBV include the Domestic Violence Act 116 of 1998, the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment (2012), The Maintenance Act 99 of 1998, and the Protection from Harassment Act 17 of 2011. These may display a clear political will towards addressing violence; however, government's underinvestment in resources and support[iv], poor implementation through limited health services, inadequately trained police[v],vi, and under resourced judicial services [vi] definitively undermine the progress we wish to see in addressing GBV.

For 2021, the 16 days of Activism campaign celebrates its 30th anniversary and, aptly so, the theme for this year is 'from awareness to accountability'[vii]. Much groundwork has been laid in education and awareness. However, now is the time to begin a profound reflection on the roles we must play in combatting GBV. Recognising that we must engage in responsibility-sharing and not responsibility shifting, as violence is intersectional and permeates our society's fabric, making that not isolated to just one group or sector, but a matter that affects all.


Dr Jill Ryan is the coordinator for gender non-violence at the Equality Unit, under Learning and Teaching. In this portfolio, Dr. Ryan coordinates, supports, and conducts activities such as training, interventions, and liaising for a comprehensive institutional response to gender violence at Stellenbosch University.

Werner van Kerwel is a legal practitioner working as a case investigation support officer within the Equality Unit at Stellenbosch University (SU). At SU, Werner is responsible for the investigation of cases related to unfair discrimination, sexual harassment, harassment, and victimisation. Werner also sits on panel of enquiries focusing on further investigations into complaints.


[i] South Africa: Broken Promises to Aid Gender-Based Violence Survivors | Human Rights Watch (

[ii] #SayHerName: The faces of South Africa's femicide epidemic - The Mail & Guardian (

[iii] Mathews, S., Martin, L. J., Coetzee, D., Scott, C., Naidoo, T., Brijmohun, Y., & Quarrie, K. (2016). The South African child death review pilot: A multiagency approach to strengthen healthcare and protection for children. South African Medical Journal106(9), 895-899.

[iv] CGE_Report_on_Shelters_2019.20.pdf (

[v] hbf_saps_research_paper_web_1.pdf (

[vi] Treaty bodies Download (

[vii] 16 Days of Activism 2021 | South African Government (