After Lockdown, Femicide Rises in South Africa

Pandemic measures focus anger on crimes against women.

JOHANNESBURG—On June 11, masked mourners gathered around the brown casket of Tshegofatso Pule, a 28-year-old woman who was murdered in early June. Pule was eight months pregnant when she was found hanging from a tree with stab wounds to her chest in a Johannesburg suburb.

The police charged a 31-year-old man with premeditated murder and said the suspect did not act alone.

Pula is just one victim among many. Femicide—the killing of women by intimate partners or as the result of gender-based practices—and other gender-based violence is on the rise in South Africa, following the gradual easing of the lockdown restrictions which began on June 1.

Pule’s murder and other recent killings have sparked outrage across the country. South Africans are simmering with anger over the ugly trend of violence against women—an old story in the country, which has been struggling with femicide for decades. However, the rash of post-coronavirus violence has revitalized the movement. The hashtag #StopKillingWomen trended on social media, with thousands of users condemning the increasing rates of violence against women and calling for justice.

Twenty-one women and children have been killed in recent weeks, said President Cyril Ramaphosa while responding to the issue in a televised presidential address. That figure is likely to be an underestimate, counting only prominent victims.

Ramaphosa described the gender-based violence in the country as a second pandemic.

“It is with the heaviest of hearts that I stand before the women and girls of South Africa this evening to talk about another pandemic that is raging in our country—the killing of women and children by the men of our country,” he said.

South Africa has one of the highest rates of violence against women in the world, with reports indicating that a woman is murdered every three hours.

Between 2018 and 2019, the police recorded nearly 178,000 crimes against women, according to the country’s most recent crime statistics. Of these, 82,728 cases were assault while 54,142 were assault with intent to cause grievous bodily harm. In addition, 2,771 women were murdered, with a further 3,445 attempted murders. In 2019 alone, the police crimes department received 87,000 cases of gender-based violence complaints.

South African men often hold patriarchal views about women, seeing them as inferior. In a country with dramatic crime rates, women fear not only a lack of social equality but also for their safety. The high rate of unemployment and economic inequality, especially in the post-pandemic era, have created a tinderbox for domestic violence. Police say the end of the nine-week ban on alcohol sales contributed to a spike in crime and gender-related violence directed at women and children.

The opposition party Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) has criticized the government for failing to protect women and girls in the country.

“We say: Let there be justice for Tshegofatso Pule,” Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, an EFF MP, said at the funeral. “The police are in their numbers. They have come to make sure that we stay one meter away from one another. But where were they [when she was killed]? They are here with their guns. They are more than 50 of them.”

Ndlozi added: “We don’t need them when we mourn; we need them to stop the mourning.”

In Nigeria, protesters have defied the lockdown restrictions to voice their anger over the recent wave of rape and murder of women and young girls in the country.

President Muhammadu Buhari reacted by condemning the increasing cases of rape and other gender-based violence in the country.

“I would like to offer my deepest condolences to the family and friends of Uwaila Omozuwa,” Buhari tweeted. “I expect the Nigeria Police Force to speedily and diligently investigate this case and ensure that all the culprits responsible for this barbaric act are brought to justice.”

Omozuwa, 22, was raped and killed inside a church where she had gone to study on May 27. A suspect has been arrested in connection to the murder. A week later, another student was raped and killed by gunmen in Ibadan, southwest Nigeria.

In May, 11 men raped a 12-year-old girl in northern Nigeria. After public outcry, the police announced the arrest of the men involved in the act and that they would soon face prosecution.

The Nigerian governors’ forum said it has resolved to declare a state of emergency on violence against women and promised to set up sex offenders register in the wake of the protests and movements.

Activists and protesters described these as mere political statements and called for more action to protect women and girls. A federal law, the Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act which was signed in 2015, remains poorly implemented. Of Nigeria’s 36 states, only 13 have domesticated and signed the law. The remaining 23 states has no state law that protects women and girls from gender-based violence.

The South African government says it is taking actions to combat the growing gender-based violence in the country. The Gender-Based Violence National Command Centre, a government program committed to intensify and accelerate efforts in combating gender-based violence, is helping victims by providing support, counseling, and making referrals.

But solutions still seem a long way off. In 2018, the National Gender-Based Violence and Femicide Summit, which aims to highlight the plight of women and girls in the country, was hosted by the government, NGOs, and civil society groups in an effort to find a solution to femicide and gender-based violence in the country. Ramphosa signed and launched Gender-Based Violence and Femicide Declaration last year and will develop a multisectoral structure and national strategy to respond to violence toward women in the country. Activists say the declaration is a step in the right direction, but much more needs to be done.

Strengthening the judicial systems to offer stiffer penalties for offenders would help prevent perpetrators from carrying out the act, activists believe. But they add that men should start having conversations about rape with each other and with their sons, in order to educate the next generation about standing up for women to end rape.

“We don’t need the military when we mourn,” the mourners sang.

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