South Africa has failed to protect its women from violent crime and needs to jack up its approach to gender equality.

The Sonke Gender Justice Network, a leading South African-based monitoring group made these scathing findings in a country report tabled at the 51st session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women in New York this week. The call comes as South Africa slipped two notches in international ratings, to find itself counted among the worst transgressors of women’s rights in the world.

Even though South Africa had made strides in appointing women to key positions in the public and private sectors, the report said gender violence in the country had reached alarming heights. A staggering 326 620 women and children were victims of crime last year.

Crime statistics in South Africa showed that women and children continued to bear the brunt of crimes in six categories: murder, attempted murder, rape, common assault, indecent assault and assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm.

The report, which was compiled on behalf of the Presidency, said low conviction rates for rape and domestic violence cases suggested that perpetrators continued to commit violence against women with relative impunity.

It said the government needed to increase its budgetary allocation for law enforcement and increase funding for gender work. In the past three years South Africa has gone from 90 to 92 on the gender development index. Norway, Iceland, Australia, Ireland and Sweden led the way, as countries where women enjoyed more equal treatment.

Burkina Faso, Mali, Sierra Leone and Niger were at the bottom of the list. The ranking looked at the adult literacy rate, the combined primary to tertiary education gross enrolments ratio and estimated income.

Norway, Iceland and Australia have 99% adult literacy for both men and women, an equal ratio of enrolments at educational institutions between men and women, and women earn almost the same income as men. But in Mali, Sierra Leone and Niger, there is a gaping difference between the development of men and women.

Mali has only 11% literacy among women compared with 26% for its men. Thirty percent of enrolments at educational institutions were for women compared with 40% for men.

The survey indicates that in Sierra Leone 24% of women are literate compared with 46% of men, and 55% of women enrol at educational institutions compared with 75% men. In Niger 15% of women are literate compared with 42% of men and 18% of women enrol at educational institutions compared with 25% of men.

Although South Africa was ahead of most African countries, it was still far behind other middle-income countries such as Mexico, Thailand and Uruguay. Egypt, Mauritius, Tunisia, Cape Verde and Algeria pipped South Africa to sixth place in the continental ratings.

Sonke’s co-founder Bafana Khumalo said gender transformation in the country would remain elusive until men were recognised as an important part of the process. “Unless we challenge men to be responsible and talk to them about gender issues, it’s going to take a long time to change,” said Khumalo.

Gender activists this week reacted with concern at the country’s drop in international ranking. Lisa Vetten, a researcher for the Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre to End Violence Against Women, said it underscored the weak implementation of good policies and the country’s reliance on the criminal justice system.

“Essentially, this drop suggests that the gap between rhetoric and reality remains unchanged, and that perhaps even a kind of stagnation or paralysis has set in,” she said. “We need more solutions than just the criminal justice system,” added Vetten. Spokesman for the Commission for Gender Equality, Yvonne Mogadime, said that at a recent conference, delegates had identified pervasive and deep-rooted patriarchy as the most serious impediment to the advancement of women and gender equality in South Africa.

Only 10 years for raping a girl

Despite life sentences being mandatory, children’s abusers are getting lesser punishments, writes Khadija Bradlow.

It was a sweltering December afternoon in Alexandra, north of Johannesburg, when Mpho Skosana (not her real name) went looking for her playmate in a neighbouring shack.

Among the misshapen Lego blocks of poverty and deprivation, the four year-old went looking for laughter with her friend.

Instead, she was raped. Her friend wasn’t home, but his 38-year-old father was. “I tried to cried [sic] but he threatened to kill me if I don’t keep quiet,” the little girl testified, according to a social worker’s report.

The child’s sister took her to the Victim Empowerment Centre at the Alexandra Police Station, where a doctor confirmed she was the victim of a sexual attack. The social worker’s report details a pathetic convergence of circumstances that led to the child being raped: “poverty” is listed in the section titled “environmental circumstances”. The child’s mother had died a year earlier, leaving her in the care of an alcoholic father and six siblings, most of them already in their late teens.

Mpho’s rapist went on trial in 2004 and was sentenced to only 10 years in jail – this despite the Criminal Law Amendment Act obliging courts to sentence rapists of children to life imprisonment, unless they find “justified and compelling circumstances” to warrant the imposition of a lesser sentence. The legislation was enacted in 1997 to impose harsh penalties on those found guilty of certain serious crimes including the rape of a minor. The reality, however, is that a wide interpretation of what constitutes “justified and compelling circumstances” has resulted in inconsistency in the sentencing of sexual offenders.

The Act does not outline specifically what qualifies as such circumstances, leading to a variety of seemingly arbitrary factors being taken into account by courts when handing down sentence.

Mpho’s rape and similar others are examples of cases that Elizabeth Mokoena has taken on. Mokoena works for ADAPT, an anti-sexual violence NGO based at the Alexandra Victim Empowerment Centre. She showed the Sunday Times a list of cases involving sexual crimes against minors where the regional courts had failed to impose life sentences and instead issued fines or shorter jail terms.

In one case, the rapist of a 10-year-old was sentenced to 10 years. In another, a perpetrator who raped his two-year-old niece, was given 18 years. Such inconsistency in the sentencing of sexual offenders where the complainant is a minor is contained in a series of reports, released by the Open Society Foundation, on the impact of the minimum-sentencing legislation.

According to the reports, one of the successes of the Criminal Law Amendment Act has been with regard to the application of minimum sentencing in rape cases. The number of prisoners serving sentences for sexual crimes increased from fewer than 10 000 in 1995 to just below 20 000 by 2005. A significant proportion of them are serving life sentences.

Prior to 2000, notes a report, “there were virtually no prisoners serving life sentences for sexual crimes, but by the end of 2002, the number of prisoners serving life sentences overtook the prisoners serving determinate sentences of longer than 20 years for sexual crimes”.

Michelle O’Sullivan, an advocate for the Women’s Legal Centre, argues that despite this increase in convictions, “judges have departed from legislative benchmarks” with regard to sexual offences.

She says the limiting of judicial discretion in respect of certain rape cases has not stopped judges reverting to stereotypical assumptions about women and relying on “rape myths”, such as the complainant’s previous sexual history and a prior relationship with the offender.

An example of this is the case of the State vs Mvamvu before the Supreme Court of Appeal in 2005. The offender had repeatedly abducted and raped his common-law wife, who had also obtained a domestic violence protection order against him. The judges held that the customary-law marriage of the accused and the complainant was a compelling circumstance to justify a lesser sentence.

Gender Development Index

Top 10 Countries

  1. Norway
  2. Iceland
  3. Australia
  4. Ireland
  5. Sweden
  6. Luxembourg
  7. Canada
  8. United States
  9. Netherlands
  10. Switzerland

Bottom 10 Countries

  1. Zambia
  2. Malawi
  3. Mozambique
  4. Burundi
  5. Democratic Republic of Congo
  6. Chad
  7. Central African Republic
  8. Burkina Faso
  9. Mali
  10. Sierra Leone
  11. Niger