More than a decade ago, when the department of health under Manto Tshabalala-Msimang failed to provide leadership on HIV prevention and the roll-out of HIV medication, activists took part in civil disobedience to demand that their right to health be respected.
The Treatment Action Campaign and its partners occupied police stations and the offices of the Commission for Gender Equality, demanding that the government comply with its commitments and obligations as laid out by the Constitution and our national laws and policies.
Is it time now for us to embark on similar action to demand that our government takes urgent action to address the social crisis of gender-based violence?
Last week, a nine-year-old girl was raped and set on fire in Delft in the Western Cape. As horrific as such stories are, they appear frequently in the news: the six-week-old baby girl who was raped two months ago in Galeshewe in the Northern Cape, or a month before that, when Yonelisa and Zandile Mali, aged two and three respectively, were kidnapped and later found, raped and murdered, their bodies dumped in a public toilet in Diepsloot. And in 2012, seven young men callously filmed and circulated a video of themselves sexually assaulting a mentally disabled girl in Bram Fischerville.
Such cruelties are inconceivable and when we hear about them the shock is visceral.
This time last year, South Africans and the world were appalled by the brutal gang rape and murder of 17-year-old Anene Booysen. Twelve days later, on Valentine's day, Reeva Steenkamp was killed by her boyfriend, Oscar Pistorius, in Pretoria. Both stories generated massive national and international headlines.
Three rapes every minute
These are not isolated incidences. Far from it. Some estimates suggest that nearly 1.5-million rapes occur in South Africa annually – that's two to three rapes every minute. Reports also suggest that in 40% of the cases the victims are children, and in 15% the victims are children under the age of 11.
All the cases that made the news generated a large amount of public outrage and widespread media coverage. Each has also led to diverse government commitments: to provide more and better services to victims, to hold perpetrators to account, to work to challenge the patriarchal norms that equate manhood with dominance over women, and to reduce gender-based violence.
But as public outrage dies down and the news shifts to other stories, the government's commitment to action recedes and the promises made seem to be not much more than lip service.
President Jacob Zuma, in his State of the Nation address delivered just a few days after Booysen's murder last year, recognised the urgent need for "unity in action to eradicate [the] scourge" of rape. "The brutality and cruelty meted out to defenceless women is unacceptable and has no place in our country," he said.
Zuma reminded the nation that the national council on gender-based violence was set up to co-ordinate the government's efforts to address rape and domestic violence. He said: "We urge this co-ordinating structure to make the campaign of fighting violence against women an everyday campaign."
But the council has little to show for the year and a half since its formation. One of us sits on the council and has witnessed meeting after meeting in which nothing gets done and no concrete steps or actions emerge.
Led by the minister of the department of women, children and people with disabilities, Lulama Xingwana, the council has failed to develop the national strategic plan on gender-based violence that it is tasked to do.
Progress for HIV but not GBV
Since 2006, the department of health and the South African National Aids Council have worked with civil society organisations to develop, fund and implement a five-year national Aids plan, which has ensured that nearly 18-million people have been tested, 2.7-million people have been put on antiretroviral treatment and the number of new HIV infections has been significantly reduced.
But the gender-based violence council has produced no such plan and there's no evidence that it's anywhere close. While the council is involved in many meetings without any clear action, strategy or plan, woman after woman, child after child gets raped – and many are murdered.
If the council cannot deliver on its mandate, then its leadership and members must be held accountable for their inaction.
The council must address the inadequate implementation of South Africa's gender-based violence legislation, particularly the Sexual Offences Act and the Domestic Violence Act.
When the council was launched, Xingwana said: "We are confident that the work of the council will lead to a significant reduction in the incidents of violence against women and children."
After 17 months, we ask the minister: "But when?"
Furthermore, the department of women, children and people with disabilities must be resourced with sufficient funds to do this work meaningfully. Currently, the department is under-resourced and this not only shows a lack of commitment to these issues but also makes it more challenging for the council on gender-based violence to effect significant change. This also makes it difficult to determine whether the ineffectiveness of the council is largely owed to a lack of budget or a lack of strong leadership.
Appeal to political leaders
Zuma will soon give his 2014 State of the Nation address and we are challenging him to tackle gender-based violence head on and not to allow an ineffective council to be our only national response.
We urge the president and his Cabinet to provide leadership on this issue and call on the council to develop a costed, evidence-based national strategic plan with time frames for implementation and clearly laid-out responsibilities and consequences for failure to deliver.
Last year, the Sonke Gender Justice Network and its partners called on Minister of Finance Pravin Gordhan to establish a multistakeholder fund to address gender-based violence. We met officials from the treasury and called for R1-billion a year to cover health and criminal justice system services, and to fund effective national campaigns to prevent gender-based violence.
We did not hear back from the treasury, and we again issue the same call and urge Gordhan to treat gender-based violence as an urgent national priority and to budget accordingly.
We call on the government to fulfil its commitment to re-establish the specialised sexual offences courts. In 2014, 22 such courts are planned and budgeted to be set up..
We also call on all women and men to demand dedicated and continuous action from local, provincial and national governments to follow through with the important work that needs to happen in all spheres of society to take comprehensive measures to address sexual violence – and particularly violence against women and children.
Will we just accept that ours is a society where we are not safe on our streets, in our taxis and in our homes, or will we give this issue the attention, money and action it deserves?
Mbuyiselo Botha is the Sonke Gender Justice Network's media liaison officer, Czerina Patel is a communications consultant to the organisation and Dean Peacock is its cofounder and director
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