History of Women's struggle in South Africa

Contemporary issues: Women's struggle, 1900-1994

Safety and security issues

Domestic Violence and Abuse

Assault victim. Julesburg clinic. Northern Province. © Liam Lynch

The occurrence of domestic violence has always been alarmingly high in South Africa. Though domestic violence is not limited to female members of the family, statistics show that women are most affected by this form of violence. In many domestic violence cases women and girls are often battered and even killed by their partners/relatives. Fear of abandonment often prevents women from reporting violence on themselves. Incest and abuse is most commonly practiced in families where the father is the only source of income, because the entire family is dependent on him. In this situation fathers subject their daughters or stepchildren to sexual abuse and often the incidents are not reported to the police or sometimes even to their mothers. If the incident is reported to the child's mother, she would often not report it to the police for fear that the father would victimise her or withdraw the resources that keep the family going. This suggests that poverty and bad socio-economic conditions (like unemployment and overcrowding) play an important role in silencing abuse victims.

It should be highlighted that women are not only abused by people familiar to them. They are also exposed and vulnerable to abuse by strangers. It is widely (though cozmpletely falsely) believed that sexual engagement with a young child or virgin can cure HIV/AIDS. This exacerbates the exploitation of young girls and virgins by strangers and family members alike. In spite of an intensive campaign to discourage people, this disgusting exercise is perpetuated. Women victimised by strangers are mostly those without good infrastructure like streets lights and safe public transport. 

The Domestic Violence Act (DVA)

In 1996, in an attempt to address the state of affairs, the government introduced the Domestic Violence Act (Act 116) , with the objection of providing protection to women against domestic violence and abuse. The Act outlines behaviour that constitutes domestic violence including physical, sexual, verbal, emotional and psychological abuse; stalking, intimidation, harassment, malicious damage or unauthorised access to the complainant's property; as well as other forms of controlling behaviour which may cause harm to the safety, health or well being of the complainant. The Act allows women to approach the court to apply for a protection order against their abusive partners and prohibits an abusive partner to commit any action of domestic violence.

Police and Judicial Systems

Victims of assault and rape in South Africa are faced with a police system that is not bringing any hope into their lives. M any women do not report rape incidents because of fear and a lack of faith in the policing/judicial systems. Fears of being disbelieved by members of the police services, fear of reprisal and intimidation or fears of knowing the offender and feeling ashamed. In spite of the availability of a medical report, police officers are often unable to come up with a conclusive case that leads to the conviction of an offender, as they lack adequate training to deal with rape and domestic violence. This makes women reluctant and sometimes afraid to lay charges against perpetrators.

Apart from limited training, police officers are also unable to create an encouraging and friendly environment for victims to express their domestic suffering and rape ordeals. The process is not victim friendly. Police are insensitive in interrogating plaintiffs or cannot give necessary advise to these victims, like referring them to a medical doctor for a medical examination or professional counselling.

Even where domestic violence and abuse charges can successfully be laid at police stations, the cases might not be won in the court of law, due to the lack of necessary support from police officers and medical practitioners. For example, by neglecting to inform the victim to obtain a J88 form from the medical practitioner in order to ensure that an assault or rape indeed took place. This medical evidence is of critical importance in court. Without the form it is highly unlikely that the victim's case could be won in court. However, the J88 form has its own shortcomings, which could make prosecution unsuccessful. It allows doctors to omit crucial information, including a record of the victim's description of what had happened. Victims are often treated insensitively in court and therefore loose trust and faith in both the police and judicial systems.

Role of the NGO's and Government institutions

There are vibrant Non-governmental Organisations, like People Opposing Women Abuse (POWA) and Women Against Women Abuse (WAWA) , which were established in 1979 and 1989 respectively, to educate and support female victims of assault and rape. POWA was established in response to the high levels of violence against women experienced in the community, while WAWA is also assisting women with counselling and legal matters. If you would like more information on these organisations and their functions please go to their websites using the links below.