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Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, its causes and consequences finalizes country visit to South Africa

Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, finalizes country visit to South Africa

14 December 2015

PRETORIA (11 December 2015) At the end of her official visit to South Africa, the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, its causes and consequences, Ms. Dubravka Simonovic, delivered the following statement:

“I would like to begin by expressing my appreciation to the Government of South Africa for extending me an invitation to visit the country and in particular to  the Minister of Women, Ms. Susan Shabangu,  whose Department  was in charge of organizing the official programme. This is my first official visit since I took up functions and I am very glad that it coincides with the culmination of the 16 Days of activism to end violence against women in which the Government, but also civil society actors have participated with great enthusiasm and commitment. I was honored to take part in the official programme in the Eastern Cape Province on 10th December, event which marked the end of the campaign and the celebration of the International Day on Human Rights. It was the occasion to recall that women’s rights are human rights. I am grateful to all the stakeholders I met during my eight-day visit, including national and provincial authorities, members of parliament, Chapter 9 institutions,  representatives of civil society organizations, academics and representatives of the United Nations entities. Most importantly, I wish to extend my heartfelt thanks to the women’s survivors of gender-based violence who have shared their stories with me, and the shelters which have taken care of them and where I was able to meet with them. As it was said to me, survivors are in fact victors.

South Africa is still a young democracy and the scars of its past are still very much alive in its social fabric. The violence inherited from the apartheid still resonate profoundly in today’s South African society dominated by deeply entrenched patriarchal attitudes towards the role of women in society which makes violence against women and children an almost accepted social phenomenon. I have heard on many occasions that “violence is normalized”.

Despite an arsenal of progressive laws and policies to deal with gender-based violence put very ably in place, starting with the Constitution which guarantees to all South Africans the right to live in dignity and free from violence, , the Domestic Violence Act, the Sexual Offenses Act, the Family Violence Act, to name but a few , there has been little implementation, hence impact and gender-based violence continue to be pervasive andat the level of systematic women’ human rights violation. Figures which have been reported to me on different forms of violence against women and girls, such as sexual violence including rape and femicides, do indeed support such assessment even though there are no national statistical data on gender-relating killings. In that respect, I would like to reiterate the call I had directed to all UN Members States to establish a “femicide” or “gender-relating killings” watch through which member states, including South Africa, would release every year on 25th of November, International Day on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, the number of femicides or gender-motivated killings of women per year, disaggregated by age and sex of the perpetrators, as well as the relationship between that perpetrator and the victim or victims. Information about the prosecution and punishment of perpetrators should also be collected and published. On the basis of such information, each case of femicide should be carefully analyzed to identify any failure of protection in view of improving and developing further preventive measures.

Throughout my visit, I have heard time and again that implementation is a challenge and law enforcement is weak. Victims face multiple challenges throughout their quest to seek justice and I have been privileged through multiple encounters with different stakeholders to become appraised of those.  Let me walk you through the long journey of a victim of gender-based violence and highlight some of the current gaps and weakness in the current responses to acts of GBV.

It all starts with the first in line in responding to such violence, the police. Let me first of all acknowledge the difficulties that the South African police is confronted with, starting with the extreme level of everyday violence,and the lack of human resources but also of equipment they suffer. However, the police needs as a matter of urgency to improve its responses to GBV acts.  It was reported to me that despite some commendable measures, such as the establishment in some of the police stations of victim friendly rooms, these measures are unevenly implemented throughout the country and victims continue to face re-victimization when willing to report acts of GBV. It has been acknowledged that the reporting rate of GBV in general is very low. I have consistently heard during my visit that only 1 out of 10 cases of rape will get reported. There is an urgent need to create a conducive environment for reporting cases, with police officers meeting victims with understanding, sympathy but foremost knowledge on their positive duties to protect women in domestic partnerships who are victims of abuses, to manage the reporting and investigation of sexual offenses and to refer those reporting sexual offenses to medical services.  Proper guidance on the steps that need to be taken, in particular as they relate to opening a case, seeking and enforcing protection orders and receiving medical care, including psycho-social care and necessary examination to collect forensic evidence are crucial. I have heard too many times during my visit that women seeking help have been turned down and told to go back to their abusive partner or communities. Other challenges identified with respect to the police actions are the lack of GBV specific training of police, in particular with respect to victims’ rights and the procedure to be followed to bring the cases forward. The poor quality of investigations due to the lack of availability of qualified investigators, and the insufficient referral for forensic evidence gathering or its inappropriate collection and management were other obstacles identified, leading to high levels of impunity. Protection orders, when speedily issued, have the potential to effectively protect victims against their abusers. Unfortunately, I learnt that there is no established risk assessment and crisis management and protection orders are often not adequately followed up by police, for lack of human or financial resources. Victims’ friendly rooms at police stations, while mandated by the Sexual Offenses Act, are lacking.

If victims have indeed found the strength and courage to report cases of GBV, often with the assistance of civil society actors, their journey to justice is far from being over. Once a case has been opened and investigations have been conducted by the police, I was made aware of obstacles at the level of the prosecution, such as the pressure to deliver convictions which in some cases lead to the withdrawal of cases, but also the difficulties faced by victims whose cases have been repetitively postponed and which places an additional emotional and financial burden. Thanks to the Thutuzela centers which I will elaborate further as a good practice, and the sexual offenses unit within the prosecution office, convictions rates which are overall law have improved for cases which have benefited from both. I have also been informed of the establishment of Khukuzela centers which are one-stop centers offering a continuum of services to victims of crime and violence broadly

At the level of the judiciary, when a case finally reaches the courts, there are additional obstacles that a victim needs to overcome. Among these, the issue of non-victim friendly conduct of the hearing, presence of perpetrators and lack of security of the victim, secondary traumatization but also gender stereotyping by magistrates leading to leniency towards the perpetrator. Training of judiciary on gender based stereotypes and GBV is also needed. I welcome the establishment of the Sexual Offenses Courts which have already increased the prosecution rate and encourage that such courts be established throughout the country.

At the institutional level, I learnt that an inter-ministerial committee was established tasked to looking at the root causes of VAWG but I have received information thatthe “diagnosis” report has not been released yet. Furthermore, the integrated programme for action addressing violence against women and children  put in place in 2013 and endorsed by the cabinet has low visibility.. While fully cognizant of the re-organization of the Ministry of women which has led it to have an oversight mandate coupled with monitoring and evaluation functions, there is a lack of clarity as to which government entity is leading on issues of VAW.  I nevertheless welcome the stated intention by the Department of women to assess the effectiveness of the overall national machinery governing gender issues in the country

Across the all spectrum of the respondents, there is insufficient specialized training for all front-line actors involved in the responses to GBV and a lack of monitoring of such training in particular in relation to the application of what participants have learnt which makes it impossible to compare the performances of the main actors in GBV responses. There is also the need for enhanced coordination between investigating officers and prosecutors in the collection of appropriate and sufficient evidence that will allow a case to proceed forward.

Quality of services provision

There is a need to improve both the scope and the quality of services available to survivors of GBV and to allocate sufficient funding for that purpose, and implementation of the Domestic Violent Act. Shelters need to be made accessible and available in sufficient numbers throughout the country, and in particular in rural areas and in the townships. While NGOs have been reported to work in close cooperation with the Government, they provide for the majority of services, while some of them should be the direct responsibility of the Government, without receiving appropriate compensation for replacing public functions.

Gaps also exist in the appropriate and speedy delivery of health services to victims of GBV but also in victims’ empowerment programme and secondary housing  which have been reported to be underfunded and understaffed.

As a good practice,  the Thuthuzela Centres are one-stop facilities that have been introduced as a critical part of South Africa’s anti-rape strategy, aiming to reduce secondary trauma for the victim, improve conviction rates and reduce the cycle time for finalising cases. The TCC which have been rightly hailed at the international level, have, where they exist, indeed contributed to the reduction of secondary victimization, an increase in conviction rates and a reduction in the length of time taken to finalize cases. I encourage the expansion of the number of these centers, in particular in rural areas and in the informal settlements and to ensure that they deliver adequate quality of care.


Different forms of manifestation of violence against women and girls take place in the country, among which domestic violence, rapes, gang-rapes which in their most extreme and forms have lethal consequences, and other forms of sexual assaults.

It was reported to me that, mostly in some rural areas, the practice of Ukuthwala continues. In practice Ukuthwala means that girls as young as eight can be forced into marriage through their abduction, kidnapping, assault and rape associated with such harmful practice. It needs to be clearly stated that such practice violates the constitutional rights to dignity, freedom and security of the person. . Other harmful practices that were reported to me, albeit to a lesser extent, include virginity testing and accusations of witchcraft.  There are incidences of female genital mutilation performed on migrants or refugee women.

Violence against girls but also children in general, including violence perpetrated by teachers, is very worrisome. Other worrisome trends are sexual violence committed against older women and the “so called” corrective rapes against LGTBI persons. 

The  multiple forms of discrimination and how these intersects with violence against women need to be urgently further looked at. Women and children with disabilities, women living with HIV/AIDS which are extremely vulnerable to GBV but also , lesbian, gay, transgender and intersex victims are subjected to additionally discriminatory treatment as are prostitutes, refugees and undocumented migrants in the country.

South Africa, as a State Party to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women has the primary responsibility to prevent and eradicate violence against women and should be held accountable for failure to act with due diligence. The international standard regarding the State’s obligation when dealing with violence against women is one of due diligence to prevent, investigate, prosecute, and compensate for these crimes.


There is an urgent need to promote prevention. In order to do so, there is a need to invest in researching and understanding the complex dynamics that support GBV in the South African context. All parts of society, and in particular disadvantaged groups, need to be well informed and aware of their rights at all steps of the process, from reporting the crime to the prosecution and adjudication of their cases.

Education, including education on gender equality is a vital social vaccine to alleviate and address the structural drivers of VAWG and needs to be of quality and adapted throughout the child’s development. Mindsets must change and quality education has the potential to achieve such change. The economic empowerment of women is another key area of prevention.

TREASURY: Budget allocation for implementation of the laws is low. It has been shown that not tackling the issues of VAW has a cost. While having been informed that there has been some pilot projects in that regard, I would like to encourage gender budgeting to ensure the actual implementation of the specific laws which deal with VAW.  

I support the call for a National Plan to end GBV which, if articulated around a set of clear strategic priorities and core achievable goals for GBV reduction and provided with accountability mechanism, will create the necessary roadmap needed to effectively respond to this pandemic. Such Plan should integrate implementation of commitments based on the international instruments like the CEDAW convention, the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against women, the CEDAW General Recommendation on article 19 as well as relevant part of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action as well as obligations based on the Constitution, the Domestic violence Act and other relevant legislation.

These are my preliminary findings. I will develop them further and provide concrete and action-oriented recommendations in the report I will present at the Human Rights Council in June 2016. It is my hope that these recommendations, mostly addressed at the State of South Africa as the primary duty bearer of the obligation to prevent and eliminate violence against women, will also be of use to all the stakeholders, and in particular to CSOs which are tirelessly engaged in the fight against this pandemic.