Gender-based violence (GBV) is a profound and widespread problem in South Africa, impacting on almost every aspect of life. GBV (which disproportionately affects women and girls) is systemic, and deeply entrenched in institutions, cultures and traditions in South Africa.
This introduction will explore what GBV is and some of the forms it takes, examine GBV in South Africa, and begin to explore what different actors are doing to respond to GBV.
What is gender-based violence?
There are many different definitions of GBV, but it can be broadly defined as “the general term used to capture violence that occurs as a result of the normative role expectations associated with each gender, along with the unequal power relationships between […] genders, within the context of a specific society.” .
The expectations associated with different genders vary from society to society and over time. Patriarchal power structures dominate in many societies, in which male leadership is seen as the norm, and men hold the majority of power. Patriarchy is a social and political system that treats men as superior to women – where women cannot protect their bodies, meet their basic needs, participate fully in society and men perpetrate violence against women with impunity .
Forms of gender-based violence
There are many different forms of violence, which you can read more about here. All these types of violence can be – and almost always are – gendered in nature, because of how gendered power inequalities are entrenched in our society.
GBV can be physical, sexual, emotional, financial or structural, and can be perpetrated by intimate partners, acquaintances, strangers and institutions. Most acts of interpersonal gender-based violence are committed by men against women, and the man perpetrating the violence is often known by the woman, such as a partner or family member .
Violence against women and girls (VAWG)
GBV is disproportionately directed against women and girls . For this reason, you may find that some definitions use GBV and VAWG interchangeably, and in this article, we focus mainly on VAWG.
Violence against LGBTI people
However, it is possible for people of all genders to be subject to GBV. For example, GBV is often experienced by people who are seen as not conforming to their assigned gender roles, such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and/or intersex people.
Intimate partner violence (IPV)
IPV is the most common form of GBV and includes physical, sexual, and emotional abuse and controlling behaviours by a current or former intimate partner or spouse, and can occur in heterosexual or same-sex couples .
Domestic violence (DV)
Domestic violence refers to violence which is carried out by partners or family members. As such, DV can include IPV, but also encompasses violence against children or other family members.
Sexual violence (SV)
Sexual violence is “any sexual act, attempt to obtain a sexual act, unwanted sexual comments or advances, or acts to traffic, or otherwise directed, against a person’s sexuality using coercion, by any person regardless of their relationship to the victim, in any setting, including but not limited to home and work.” 
Indirect (structural) violence
Structural violence is “where violence is built into structures, appearing as unequal power relations and, consequently, as unequal opportunities.
Structural violence exists when certain groups, classes, genders or nationalities have privileged access to goods, resources and opportunities over others, and when this unequal advantage is built into the social, political and economic systems that govern their lives.”
Because of the ways in which this violence is built into systems, political and social change is needed over time to identify and address structural violence.
GBV in South Africa
Societies free of GBV do not exist, and South Africa is no exception .
Although accurate statistics are difficult to obtain for many reasons (including the fact that most incidents of GBV are not reported  ), it is evident South Africa has particularly high rates of GBV, including VAWG and violence against LGBT people.
Population-based surveys show very high levels of intimate partner violence (IPV) and non-partner sexual violence (SV) in particular, with IPV being the most common form of violence against women.
- Whilst people of all genders perpetrate and experience intimate partner and or sexual violence, men are most often the perpetrators and women and children the victims .
- More than half of all the women murdered (56%) in 2009 were killed by an intimate male partner .
- Between 25% and 40% of South African women have experienced sexual and/or physical IPV in their lifetime [9, 10].
- Just under 50% of women report having ever experienced emotional or economic abuse at the hands of their intimate partners in their lifetime .
- Prevalence estimates of rape in South Africa range between 12% and 28% of women ever reporting being raped in their lifetime [10-12].
- Between 28 and 37% of adult men report having raped a women [10, 13].
- Non-partner SV is particularly common, but reporting to police is very low. One study found that one in 13 women in Gauteng had reported non-partner rape, and only one in 25 rapes had been reported to the police .
- South Africa also faces a high prevalence of gang rape .
- Most men who rape do so for the first time as teenagers and almost all men who ever rape do so by their mid-20s .
- There is limited research into rape targeting women who have sex with women. One study across four Southern African countries, including South Africa, found that 31.1% of women reported having experienced forced sex .
- Male victims of rape are another under-studied group. One survey in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape found that 9.6% of men reported having experienced sexual victimisation by another man .
Drivers of GBV
Drivers of GBV are the factors which lead to and perpetuate GBV. Ultimately, gendered power inequality rooted in patriarchy is the primary driver of GBV.
GBV (and IPV in particular) is more prevalent in societies where there is a culture of violence, and where male superiority is treated as the norm . A belief in male superiority can manifest in men feeling entitled to sex with women, strict reinforcement of gender roles and hierarchy (and punishment of transgressions), women having low social value and power, and associating masculinity with control of women .
These factors interact with a number of drivers, such as social norms (which may be cultural or religious), low levels of women’s empowerment, lack of social support, socio-economic inequality, and substance abuse.
In many cultures, men’s violence against women is considered acceptable within certain settings or situations  – this social acceptability of violence makes it particularly challenging to address GBV effectively.
In South Africa in particular, GBV “pervades the political, economic and social structures of society and is driven by strongly patriarchal social norms and complex and intersectional power inequalities, including those of gender, race, class and sexuality.” .
Impact of gender-based violence
GBV is a profound human rights violation with major social and developmental impacts for survivors of violence, as well as their families, communities and society more broadly.
On an individual level, GBV leads to psychological trauma, and can have psychological, behavioural and physical consequences for survivors. In many parts of the country, there is poor access to formal psychosocial or even medical support, which means that many survivors are unable to access the help they need. Families and loved ones of survivors can also experience indirect trauma, and many do not know how to provide effective support.
Jewkes and colleagues outline the following impacts of GBV and violence for South Africa as a society more broadly :
- South African health care facilities – an estimated 1.75 million people annually seek health care for injuries resulting from violence
- HIV – an estimated 16% of all HIV infections in women could be prevented if women did not experience domestic violence from their partners. Men who have been raped have a long term increased risk of acquiring HIV and are at risk of alcohol abuse, depression and suicide.
- Reproductive health – women who have been raped are at risk of unwanted pregnancy, HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.
- Mental health – over a third of women who have been raped develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which if untreated persists in the long term and depression, suicidality and substance abuse are common. Men who have been raped are at risk of alcohol abuse, depression and suicide.
Violence also has significant economic consequences. The high rate of GBV places a heavy burden on the health and criminal justice systems, as well as rendering many survivors unable to work or otherwise move freely in society.
A 2014 study by KPMG also estimated that GBV, and in particular violence against women, cost the South African economy a minimum of between R28.4 billion and R42.4 billion, or between 0.9% and 1.3% of gross domestic product (GDP) in the year 2012/2013. 
What do we do?
South Africa is a signatory to a number of international treaties on GBV, and strong legislative framework, for example the Domestic Violence Act (DVA) (1998), the Sexual Offences Act (2007) and the Prevention and Combatting of Trafficking in Human Persons (2013) Act” .
Whilst international treaties and legislation is important it is not enough to end GBV and strengthen responses.
Addressing GBV is a complex issue requiring multi-faceted responses and commitment from all stakeholders, including government, civil society and other citizens. There is growing recognition in South Africa of the magnitude and impact of GBV and of the need to strengthen the response across sectors.
Prevention and Response
Broadly speaking, approaches to addressing GBV can be divided into response and prevention. Response services aim to support and help survivors of violence in a variety of ways (for instance medical help, psychosocial support, and shelter). Prevention initiatives look at how GBV can be prevented from happening. Response services can in turn contribute towards preventing violence from occurring or reoccurring.
Responses are important. Major strides are being made internationally on how to best respond and provide services for survivors of violence. WHO guidelines describe an appropriate health sector response to VAW – including providing post-rape care and training health professionals to provide these services .
WHO does not recommend routine case identification (or screening) in health services for VAW exposure, but stresses the importance of mental health services for victims of trauma.
Need to address underlying causes
Much of our effort in South Africa has been focused on response. However – our response efforts need to be supported and complemented by prevention programming and policy development. By addressing the underlying, interlinked causes of GBV, we can work towards preventing it from happening in the first place.
Violence prevention policies and programmes should be informed by the best evidence we have available. Programmes that are evidence based are :
- built on what has been done before and has been found to be effective;
- informed by a theoretical model;
- guided by formative research and successful pilots; and
- multi-faceted and address several causal factors.
Several GBV prevention programmes which have support for effectiveness have been implemented in South Africa. A summary of the prevention programmes mentioned below can be found in the South African Crime Quarterly 51: Primary prevention (see table on pgs. 35-38):
- Thula Sana: Promote mothers’ engagement in sensitive, responsive interactions with their infants
- The Sinovuyo Caring Families Programme: Improve the parent–child relationship, emotional regulation, and positive behaviour management approaches
- Prepare: Reduce sexual risk behaviour and intimate partner violence, which contribute to the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STIs)
- Skhokho Supporting Success: Prevent IPV among young teenagers
- Stepping Stones: Promote sexual health, improve psychological wellbeing and prevent HIV
- Stepping Stones / Creating Futures: Reduce HIV risk behaviour and victimisation and perpetration of different forms of IPV and strengthen livelihoods
- IMAGE (Intervention with Microfinance for AIDS and Gender Equity): Improve household economic wellbeing, social capital and empowerment and thus reduce vulnerability to IPV and HIV infection
Importance to develop evidence base
At the same time, it is important to develop the evidence base further by exploring a range of other interventions that have the potential to be effective in a South African context. Many actors, including government, civil society and funders, as well as community members, are working in creative and innovative ways every day to address GBV.
For example, several civil society organisations are working with women’s groups to build their agency and empower them to address the issues that impact their lives, such as structural and interpersonal violence. Others are tackling specific drivers of GBV, such as substance abuse and gangsterism. Still others take a “whole community” approach to dealing with GBV, involving community members and leaders in the fight against violence in their communities.
Many of these interventions have not yet been formally documented, but they are nevertheless promising models which play an important role in the overall fight against GBV.
While South Africa has high levels of GBV, we are also a leader in the field of prevention interventions in low and middle income countries .
We are identifying models which work to respond to and prevent violence, and we can work on scaling those up to reach more people. At the same time, as a society, we can work together to find new ways to address GBV, building the current evidence base and responding to this national crisis.
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