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#DontLookAway: South Africa still at war against its women

What does it mean to end a war? South Africa’s 1994 elections were supposed to deliver a new era of peace, freedom and unity.But how can this be so when more than half of the country still lives in fear? War and conflict are often used synonymously to describe extreme forms of violence or armed conflict often between states.

War implies the pursuit of objectives using violence.

War is thus an act of violence that is waged within an environment of fear, uncertainty and insecurity, threats and real harm.

War often results in internal and external displacement, severe loss of human lives and livelihoods as well as emotional distress. Global statistics on fatalities caused by war show that in 2012, 51 active conflicts resulted in 110 000 deaths and in 2014, 42 active conflicts resulted in 180 000.

In wartime, rape is rampant as it is used as a weapon with countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and South Sudan recording alarming levels of rape. This is because rape is associated with power. It is a strategy of humiliation, subjugation and control that is used by opponents predominantly on women and girls during conflict. Coming back to South Africa, gender-based violence is a deeply rooted and a widespread problem, impacting on almost every aspect of life. It disproportionately affects women and girls, is systemic, and deeply entrenched in institutions, cultures and traditions. Women in South Africa are not able to fully enjoy their freedom that was supposedly attained in 1994 due to the fear they live in.

Research conducted by the Medical Research Council (MRC) in 2012 indicated that intimate partner violence is the leading cause of women homicide, with a woman being murdered every 8 hours by a partner. With the 2011 census results showing that females make up 51.6% of the population, this means that a significant representation of the country’s population lives in fear of losing their lives.

When it comes to rape, South Africa has been dubbed the rape capital outside war zones, competing with countries in conflict such as DRC and South Sudan. According to the 2015/16 SAPs Police annual crime report, 51 895 sexual offences cases were reported with rape accounting for 41 503. During the previous year (2014/15), sexual offences accounted for 53 617 cases and rape accounted for 43 195.

For a supposed post-conflict nation, such statistics are staggering. Also, with various studies showing low levels of reporting for sexual violence and rape, these statistics only represent a portion of the sexual violence that women experience in the country. With most of the rapes happening in private spaces, it means women and girls live in fear of sexual violation in their homes. While rape as a war crime is recognised by the UN Security Council Resolutions 1325 and 1820, which also provide recourse for such violence with the International Court of Justice, in South Africa there are high levels of impunity.

Research done by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) in 2009 on rape attrition cases in Gauteng found that only 42% of arrested perpetrators were ever charged in court, and that only 17.3% of those cases resulted in trials.

Of the cases that resulted in trials, a rape conviction was only secured in 4.1% of cases. Thus rape survivors live to see their abusers walk free and in some instances rape them again. Thus while in conflict situations, rape is a weapon of war, in South Africa it has become a war of rape.

Domestic violence is not criminalised and normally falls under assault with intent to cause grievous bodily harm also known as assault GBH, common assault and murder. The SAPS crime report mentioned earlier shows that 182 933 cases were recorded in 2015/16, while common assault had 164 985 cases in the same year.

While these statistics are not peculiar to domestic violence, they also include it, with 29.9% of common assault cases reported in Gauteng being domestic violence-related incidents, while the same analysis in Mpumalanga had 19.5%. Domestic violence often happens in residences and private spheres, meaning that not only are women and girls not free in public spaces where they are constantly expected to police themselves and watch their backs for safety, but they also live in fear, distress and suffer physical, emotional, financial harm in places that ought to be safe.

Such conditions are no different from war environment. This begs the question why South Africa is constantly referred as a post-conflict nation, when more than half of the population is living in conditions similar to armed conflict settings? We can also ask under what circumstances violence is regarded as war? Should war only be recognised when it uses weaponry, when men declare it and fight each other or can the violence on women’s bodies and livelihoods by predominantly men be considered as war? Who reserves the right to declare which form of violence is war? And why is it important to recognise the violence on women’s bodies as war?

While peace has no single definition and is dependent on the one defining it, it certainly does not include the presence of fear and subjection of life to threats and possible harm.

Just over half of those living in South Africa are women who are more prone to gender-based violence. It is time we realised that South Africa has not yet transitioned from conflict. If anything, it is time to acknowledge that the nation is still living under war conditions, and the transition mechanisms used at the end of apartheid did not take into cognisance the violence on women’s and girls’ bodies.

The same concerted efforts and determination used to end the evils of apartheid should to be adopted in addressing gender-based violence. We cannot continue to bask under the banner of post-conflict as this does not denote the reality of the lives of many a woman in South Africa.

This is still war and it is about time we name it and address it for what it is! Until then, there will be no peace, freedom and security for all in South Africa.

Source: Independent Online

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