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Wednesday, February 1, 2023

16 Days of Activism: new justice system perspectives on countering gender-based violence in South Africa

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As part of the UN Secretary-General’s campaign for 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence 2022, entitled “UNITE! Activism to end violence against women and girls”, UNODC is showcasing its activities around the world that help to accelerate efforts to end violence against women and girls through a series of web stories.

Today, we hear two tales from South Africa of when culture clashes with criminal law and explore the potential for positive interventions that douse the fuel on gender-based violence in the nation.

Nfundi pleaded guilty to and was convicted of thieving one can of formula milk and an item of ladies clothing from a supermarket. She was 32 years old, had previous convictions, and indicated that she would probably do it again if any of her four children (aged between three and 13) needed food or clothing. 

She was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment after being in custody for five months, even though the crime was linked with basic survival needs.  

Nfundi’s story is like those of many other women who frequently come into conflict with the law in South Africa. A 2021 situational assessment conducted by the United Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) indicated that women’s ‘pathways’ into the South African criminal justice system commonly include substance abuse, poverty, experiences of victimization and marginalization, extreme physical, mental and emotional abuse, and mental illness. South Africa’s legal and policy framework favours a gender-neutral custodial and non-custodial regime. It rarely considers these pathways.  

One such rare case was that of a mother being convicted of murder for strangling her drug-addicted son. A non-custodial sentence was imposed. In closing arguments, her attorney argued that she was not a villain, but rather a victim who had been punished all her life. He reasoned that the motive for the killing was “self-preservation”, and that imprisonment was “not the only appropriate sentence given the facts of the case”. 

UNODC has piloted two projects promoting consideration of the issues experienced by women, as victims and as caregivers. As a result, a discussion paper was drafted to spearhead changes in legislation for non-custodial measures, in a process championed by South Africa’s justice minister Ronald Lamola. This is one significant step to ensuring that the victim-centric pathways that women find themselves on towards contact with the law are specifically considered. 

With violence against women and girls, as well as femicides, reaching epidemic proportions in South Africa, traditional leaders have the capacity to become influencers of change – change that can save lives. 

South African police estimate that between July and September 2022 nearly eleven women were killed each day, while approximately three children were murdered per day between April and September. According to UNODC and UN Women’s global femicide report, in 2017 the South African intimate partner femicide rate of 4.6 per 100 000 population was five times higher than the estimated global rate of 0.8 per 100 000 people. More than 60 per cent of women victims that year were killed by intimate partners or other family members.   

How then should law enforcement deal with a situation in which a woman is murdered or assaulted because they were believed to be using witchcraft to harm their intimate partner or family members? If the offender asserts that they were engaged in a widely practiced custom accepted as appropriate in traditional society? Perhaps the answer lies in seeking help from the leaders of that society. 

At a UNODC dialogue on gender-based violence in Limpopo, deputy justice minister Nkosi Holomisa emphasized that traditional leaders have authority over some 18 million people and, by being linked more closely into the chain of justice, can be enablers of positive change in the way gender-based violence is addressed. 

“Violence is not in our culture, in fact we strive for peace in our communities,” asserted a traditional leader in Limpopo. Members of the House of Traditional Leaders questioned why they are being excluded from national efforts to counter gender-based violence. “We are not even informed when offenders are released into our communities and yet we can do so much to monitor them and keep survivors safe,” said the leader of the house, Hosi Ngove.  

As the backbone of many communities and symbols of unity, traditional leaders are in an opportune position to reverse the epidemic of gender-based violence – which disrupts the social order and community cohesion. Female traditional leaders can make themselves not only enablers of change in the support given to women survivors, but also role models for equality and empowerment within society. 

Further information

This year’s 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence campaign kicked off on 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and runs until 10 December, Human Rights Day. The yearly campaign sparks hundreds of events around the world designed to accelerate efforts to end violence against women and girls. The global theme for this year’s UN Secretary-General-led campaign is “UNITE! Activism to end violence against women and girls”, calling upon governments and partners to show their solidarity with women’s rights movements and activists, and inviting everyone to join the global movement to end violence against women once and for all. 

Comprehensive and multi-sectoral solutions are required to end all forms of gender-based violence against women and girls by 2030, in line with Sustainable Development Goal 5.2. Crime prevention and criminal justice responses are a key part of this approach. Learn more about UNODC’s work on gender-based violence here. 

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