Trigger Warning: Sexual assault/rape, gender-based murder/violence
On June 18, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa stated that a nationwide reopening was necessary to preserve the country’s economy. So, despite a rapidly increasing number of cases, South Africa began to loosen their COVID-19 restrictions mid-June. These loosened restrictions included opening sit-down restaurants and casinos and once again allowing alcohol sales, according to BBC. This announcement proved deadly for many South Africans — and for more than one reason. As expected, the number COVID-19 cases shot up. But also, tragically, as the number of coronavirus cases rose, so did the number of gender-based murders (or femicides) against South African women.
A Deadly History
Tragically, this violence is by no means new. According to CNN, “South Africa has one of the highest femicide rates anywhere in the world”. Such high rates of gender-based violence are likely rooted in the country’s deep-rooted patriarchal values. In the words of Given Sigauqwe (who works with the non-profit organization Sonke Gender Justice), “A lot of comments that are made in the home seem quite innocuous. But there’s nothing innocuous if you’re operating in this system of patriarchy where to show your strength, you need to beat up someone”. The violence of such a patriarchal culture was exemplified when between April 2018 and March 2019 alone, murderers took the lives of nearly 3,000 South African women. In the majority of these cases, the murderers utilized sexual violence as well.
South Africa declared femicide a national crisis in 2019. In particular, public outrage surrounding the brutal rape and murder of Uyinene Mrwetyana, a 19-year-old University of Cape Town student, spurred the announcement. A post office employee raped and murdered Mrwetyana. She was simply trying to collect a package. Women around the country raised the question: “Where am I safe?”.
In June 2020, President Ramaphosa said that “as a father to daughters, [he] is appalled at what is no less than a war being waged against the women and children of [South Africa]”. But danger has only increased for South African women. In the weeks following the country’s reopening, murderers killed more than 20 women and children. According to Bloomberg, the police reported that the end of the ban on alcohol sales contributed to the rising number of cases. With roughly 50 percent of sexual assault cases occurring when either the perpetrator, victim, or both are under the influence of alcohol, this link is unsurprising. However, just recently, on July 13, the country implemented yet another alcohol ban in an effort to combat COVID-19. And this restriction by no means creates a permanent solution to gender-based violence.
A Sexist Virus
This pandemic directly overlaps with COVID-19, a virus with effects that target women. During the start of the pandemic in South Africa, back in March, the country took a hard stance against the virus. Apparently having learned from the HIV/AIDS pandemic, South Africa almost immediately enforced an incredibly strict lockdown. However, beginning in May (when the country began to relax restrictions), South Africa took a hard hit from COVID-19. According to CNN, South Africa then faced the most cases of COVID-19 on the continent.
But the country’s changing approach to handling the virus disproportionately impacts women, according to the World Health Organization. In Africa, like in the rest of the world, lockdowns and stay-at-home orders worsened already existing domestic violence issues. The economic impacts of lockdown also disproportionately impact women and girls nationwide.
For women in South Africa, the threat of femicide looms over them each and every day. On Twitter, activists started the #JusticeForTshego campaign. According to BBC, Tshego, a pregnant 28-year-old, was found hanging from a tree in Johannesburg. These women continue fighting for safety, protection, and concrete change to South Africa’s patriarchal society.
Most recently, women took to the streets in June, following eased COVID-19 restrictions. These women demanded female judges for gender-based violence cases, and say that “change will only come if concrete action happens at the level of police and prosecutors”. They also state that femicide will continue until non-abusers vow to hold South African men accountable. And South African women are leading that fight.
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