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'A nation cannot be free until its women are free'

Despite positive steps towards gender equality, South African women still face severe threats of violence.

Last updated: 10 Mar 2014 11:47
Zubeda Dangor

Zubeda Dangor is the Executive Director of Nisaa Institute for Women’s Development.
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Activists in the field attest to the fact that the actual number of rapes is much higher than the reported figure, writes Dangor [Reuters]

The recent proceedings of the Oscar Pistorius trial has created the opportunity for us to reflect and focus the spotlight on the issues of gender equality - and more specifically - intimate partner violence in South Africa.

South Africa is often dubbed the "rape capital" of the world. It is estimated that more than 70 percent of women in the country have experienced sexual abuse. A Medical Research study conducted in 2010 found that more than a quarter of South African men have admitted to raping a girl or woman.

One in seven men admitted to gang-rape. In 2012 the South African police documented more than 64,000 reported rapes. Activists in the field attest to the fact that the actual number of rapes is much higher than the reported figure.

In 2014, South Africa celebrates 20 years of democracy. Constitutionally, much was put in place to promote the equality of women. Much has been done to support women empowerment and to place women on a visible agenda; gender machinery was established and the South African government signed and ratified CEDAW (Conference on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women) and the optional protocol unreservedly.

A chronological assessment of women's lives over the past 20 years suggests that there have been many helpful shifts in putting women on a more equal footing with men, but in essence these changes did not bring about the required shifts on the ground.

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According to Stats SA, 40 percent of parliamentary seats are reserved for women; this, however, has not made a difference at a collective level. Men still occupy top senior management positions with decision-making power, whereas women hold the largest chunk of leadership positions in the non-profit sector, followed by education.

Professional and personal networks of men are still strong and it is difficult for women to penetrate those structures, which again is an informal structure with much power.

Most of the changes tend to focus on legal and policy aspects which are not implemented effectively so that women on the ground can receive social justice.

There is a perception that men feel emasculated by the system; they think women  - in the new South Africa - are given many more privileges than them. Women are becoming more aware of their rights and this constitutes a threat for male perpetrators of IPV (intimate partner violence). A dominant view among some men is that by having a more egalitarian relationship with their partners, they will lose their masculinity.

The current economic environment with high levels of unemployment, increased interest rates, and the persistent rise in food prices leads to frustration. In such context,  intimate partners - in most cases - bear the brunt of their partner's frustrations. IPV, therefore, serves as an impediment to women's full participation in society. As Nelson Mandela once said, "A nation cannot be free until its women are free."

The challenge we face as a society is how to deal with the intense level of impunity against IPV. There is just too much tolerance of perpetrators of such crimes by the range of stakeholders working in the sector which includes the criminal justice system. The ineffectiveness of the system has led to suspended sentences for some IPV perpetrators. Such sentences send a clear message: Perpetrators can get away with being abusive and misogynistic towards women.

The rising level of corruption is also a great concern. Perpetrators pay the police off, leading to further impunity and no redress for IPV victims. Our macho gun culture perpetuates violence against women, as many men possess guns obtained illegally. There is also little control over those who apply for legal gun licenses. Should we be really giving gun licences to men with a history of IPV?

At the same time, non-profit organisations which help victimised women, face closure and cutbacks. Thus the most vulnerable in society do not receive the help they need.

Indeed, we have become immune and insensitive to the pain and suffering of IPV victims. If three women are killed in South Africa on a daily basis, the question we need to ask is: "Are women's lives so cheap?"

Zubeda Dangor is the Executive Director of Nisaa Institute for Women's Development.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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