What is there to celebrate when women across the country are consistently afraid of leaving their homes alone, returning home to abusive partners, and raising their daughters in an inherently violent society which disproportionately affects the girl child and women?

Every year, South Africa celebrates National Women’s Month in August, in commemoration of the 9 August 1956 march of almost 20,000 women to the Union Buildings in Pretoria. Led by uMama uLilian Ngoyi, Rahima Moosa, Helen Joseph and Sophia de Bruyn, they marched to petition against the laws requiring South Africans who were classified as black in terms of the Population Registration Act to carry pass books.

This year, we celebrated 64 years since this iconic moment.

The government has selected the theme, “Generation Equality: Realising Women’s Rights for an Equal Future‘” for Women’s Month 2020. As we embark on these celebrations, we need to engage in an honest conversation about the actual state of affairs for women living in this country.

It is common knowledge that violence is intricately woven into the fabric of South African society. The most recent crime stats (2019/2020) confirm this. Despite the national lockdown, crime stats soared and offences that target primarily women were no different. A significant increase in sexual offences paints a dark picture for the safety, dignity, and equal treatment of women in this country.

We cannot celebrate women in an atmosphere of fear.

Women across the country are consistently afraid of leaving their homes alone, returning home to abusive partners, and raising their daughters in an inherently violent society which disproportionately affects the girl child and women. The statistics are horrendous and should never cease to elicit a strong response from both the public and all government agencies.

Covid-19 has also taken its toll. Following the outbreak of the coronavirus in early March, South Africans were soon forced to remain in their homes.

In the first week of lockdown alone, the South African Police Service (SAPS) received 2,300 complaints of gender-based violence (GBV). Police Minister Bheki Cele said that in the first three weeks of the lockdown, government’s GBV and Femicide Command Centre, which runs a toll-free, 24/7 emergency call centre, recorded more than 120,000 calls to the helpline for abused women and children. This is double the usual volume of calls. One can easily imagine the extent of violence that has occurred and continues to take place over the extended State of National Disaster.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), five times more women are murdered by an intimate partner in South Africa than anywhere else in the world.

GBV is indeed the second pandemic South Africa is facing. In fact, this pandemic was here before Covid-19 and will continue to ravage our communities long after it is over.

Over and above concerning GBV statistics, women have borne the brunt of the devastating economic downturn because of Covid-19. Women occupy the overwhelming majority of unskilled labour positions and experience the most job insecurity in the labour market. Women make up the majority of frontline workers – nurses, social workers and other hospital staff. They are exposed to the pandemic in alarming proportions, yet they receive limited support.

Further, women continue to fight structural inequality in workspaces where their upward mobility is limited and there are fewer female executives than male ones. Women are paid less than their male counterparts and have to battle harassment of all forms, in disproportionate amounts, no matter what levels of professionalism they occupy.  

Black women remain the most affected by the systemic inequality we see in South Africa. We may have a representative Parliament, and on paper, through our progressive laws, extend equality to all women, but on the ground, we are far from our imagined democracy.

Pandemics have the devastating effect of amplifying existing inequalities in the societies they affect, and Covid-19 has been no different.

It cannot be the responsibility of women alone to effect change when it comes to the scourge of GBV. A collective self-reflection and effort must take place. More male voices must be heard calling out their peers and championing the cause for equal treatment of women and girls.

As we celebrate Women’s Month, let us all come together and demand accountability from the government. Let us call on President Cyril Ramaphosa to tell South African women what has been done by the steering committee established in April 2019 to respond to the GBV crisis. 

We demand a follow through on the National Strategic Plan on Gender-Based Violence and Femicide. We want to know where the action plan is. We want to know when legal changes will be implemented to guarantee harsher sentences for perpetrators of gender-based violence.

Until we have visible action and accountability from the government, all we have are empty promises for vulnerable women, and another hollow celebration for South Africa’s women. DM