News / Africa

SAF Women Push for Enforcement of Laws

Fumana Ntontlo, 30, who says she was raped at age eight by a family member, sits in her one-room shack in Cape Town's Khayelitsha township. (file photo)Fumana Ntontlo, 30, who says she was raped at age eight by a family member, sits in her one-room shack in Cape Town's Khayelitsha township. (file photo)
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Fumana Ntontlo, 30, who says she was raped at age eight by a family member, sits in her one-room shack in Cape Town's Khayelitsha township. (file photo)
Fumana Ntontlo, 30, who says she was raped at age eight by a family member, sits in her one-room shack in Cape Town's Khayelitsha township. (file photo)
JOHANNESBURG - The gang-rape of a mentally impaired girl last month in Soweto Township in Johannesburg outraged South Africa and the world. It was a stark reminder that despite liberal and advanced legal protections for women, South Africa still ranks high in terms of assaults and rape.

South Africa is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for women in terms of rape and domestic violence. The World Health Organization says 60,000 women and children are abused every month in the country.

Peace - her name has been changed to protect her identity - is one of those 60 000.

As she chats with her housemates, she recalls the long journey that got her here: a husband, wealthy and powerful, the violence, the threats, the years spent away from her child.  And finally, nearly a year ago, the arrival at the shelter of the NGO People Against Women Abuse, also known as POWA.

"When I came here, they helped me to improve my skills," she said. "And one of the things I have learned here, is that, you do not have to stay in an abusive relationship. You do not have to stay. You have to speak out. Seek for help."

Peace was brave enough to make a change for herself. But POWA counselor Thandi Ngandweni says not all women report abuse.

"Some of these women, especially in the rural areas, we hear when they come here to the office that some of them did not know their rights at all," said Ngandweni. "So then we have the workshops, we educate them."

Commission for Gender Equality spokesperson Javu Baloyi says making women aware of their rights needs to be a priority if South Africa is going to evolve from its male-dominated culture.

“We live in a patriarchal society, whereby some men, they do not believe that women have got rights," said Baloyi. "We need to make sure that issues of gender and human rights are becoming compulsory for students at university. And even at basic level, you know, elementary level, kids are supposed to have these courses on life orientation; what is gender, what is human rights.  We need to make sure that we teach our teachers.  We teach our tribal leaders.  We teach our parliamentarians.  We teach society at large."

South African women, whether they know it or not, have some of the most liberal and advanced legal protections in the world. This is due, in part, to quick action to overturn all forms of discrimination when white minority rule ended in 1994.

The first African National Congress government legalized a quota system to assure female participation in parliament. Today women make up 38 percent of the legislature. Those women lawmakers helped pass equal rights.

But an attorney at the Women's Legal Centre in Cape Town, Sanja Bornman, says the laws are not always implemented.

“On paper, laws that are aimed at protecting women are very good.  But there is a dire need for resources that needs to be allocated towards the implementations of those laws," said Bornman. "For example, the Department for Women, Children and People with Disabilities, it has little money to be able to do anything that is really going to make an impact in the life of women and children.”

Less money means not enough police officers to register abuse reports.  It means slow justice that deters victims from going to court, as very few abusers will be convicted.  It means not enough people for women's rights education or enough in the NGOs and gender commission offices to monitor rights compliance.

For Sanja Bornman, there is no point in making new laws.

"I think that introducing a new law is counterproductive, in the sense that if we have things on the law that are not working, perhaps we should invest resources into monitoring and evaluating that legislation to discover why it is not working," said Bornman.

Bornman explains how the Women Legal Centre is working to get women’s rights issued higher on the government agenda.

"The Women Legal Centre does it through either advocacy, which is something we do with our many partner associations," said Bornman. "Alternatively, if you come to the end of your advocacy road, and nothing have happened, then that is time for litigation.  And that is when WLC would launch a case, it would either be in the form of a public interest suit, where we litigate on behalf of a group of people. Alternatively, it would be in the form of an individual client where the impact of that client's case will have an effect on a larger group of women."

In his speech during the State of the Nation in February, South African President Jacob Zuma acknowledged that women suffer much of the unemployment, poverty and insecurity in the country. But his speech did not specifically address remedies.

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